NEW YORK (AP) -- Let your imagination loose and hearken back to a gentler time, when there was no television, radio or YouTube. Victorian-era stories were printed serially in newspapers and magazines, or in hardcover books, and readers and listeners created pictures in their minds.
One such tale of adventure is the real-life subject of Donald Margulies' thoroughly charming play "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougement (As Told by Himself)," now having its New York premiere by Primary Stages at off-Broadway's 59E59 Theaters. (It runs through March 7.)
Michael Countryman's wide-eyed, boyish charm is ingratiating, as he leaps about the stage portraying de Rougemont, enthusiastically telling his life in chapters. We begin with his sickly childhood, "tucked in my little bed" as his loving mother reads "Robinson Crusoe" aloud, then join him as he embarks upon seafaring adventures, experiences life on a desert island and then among cannibals, and eventually makes a triumphant return to civilization.
Jeremy Bobb is hilarious as de Rougemont's loyal dog Bruno, among other roles, and nearly stops the show when he briefly appears as a famous British personage. Donnetta Lavinia Grays is equally adept at giving genuine characterization to each of her roles, including the roughhewn captain of a pearl-diving ship as well as de Rougemont's loving mother and his doting Aboriginal wife, Yamba.
Lisa Peterson directs these three talented actors, who work their magic on Neil Patel's brilliantly simple, round platform of a set, while skillfully switching props and creating many of the sound effects themselves. Clever, minimal music and sound design (John Gromada), lighting (Stephen Strawbridge) and costuming (Michael Krass) all add to the deliberately amateurish, inventive nature of the production.
This old-fashioned approach to storytelling works perfectly, involving the audience to such a degree that, when de Rougemont's tales of fabulous adventures are eventually punctured by self-righteous, 19th century British scientists and journalists, the audience becomes as downcast as Louis himself.
Enthralled by his tales of hardship and survival, we chose to believe that he saw "wombats rising in clouds at sunset" and could charm savages by performing "self-taught acrobatics."
Now elderly and disgraced, accused of being deluded, de Rougement sadly asks the audience, "What is truth?" — querying who among us has not embellished a story to make it more interesting or "dabbed a few spots of color on the drab canvas of life."
Margulies knows that we resent those naysayers who puncture our collective enchantment, "skeptics and anti-dreamers, small-minded logicians and earthbound stargazers."
As Louis earnestly puts it, "Every child must nourish his dreams."
And so, for the child in every audience member, the abiding image from "Shipwrecked!" will not be an abject, deflated Louis, crashed on the shoals of rigid reality, but the younger Louis, a merry, acrobatic castaway, the fantastical dreamer in all of us.