THEATER | “Shipwrecked!” at the Jungle Theater: A grand entertainment

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One of my favorite music videos—Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” directed by the brilliant Spike Jonze—is built on a clever concept: as the Icelandic siren walks down the street, random passersby (and, ultimately, architectural elements) join with her in seemingly spontaneous but tightly choreographed dances. It’s fun, it’s witty, it’s very well done. By the end, everyone is dancing in formation in the street—and then, at the video’s conclusion, the camera pulls back for an aerial long shot, magically bringing the singer with it. Taking a clever conceit, pulling it off with flair, and then taking it to the next level: it’s Jonze’s trademark, and it’s a trick that director Joel Sass and his enthusiastic cast impressively perform in the Jungle Theater’s current production of Shipwrecked!

Subtitled The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself), Donald Margulies’s Shipwrecked! is a play within a play based on the true story of the false story of Henri Louis Grin (1847-1921), an Englishman whose credible—but incredible—tale was serialized in Wide World Magazine beginning in 1898. In Shipwrecked!, we watch Louis (Michael Booth) perform his memoir with the aid of three actors (Emily Gunyou Halaas, Stephen Cartmell, Edwin Strout) who together portray all 25 of the other characters who figure in Louis’s saga while visible stagehands (Alicia M. Dansby, Amber Davis, Paul Rutledge) manipulate lights, shadow puppets, and sound effects with unflagging inventiveness.

shipwrecked! an entertainment: the amazing adventures of louis de rougemont (as told by himself), presented through may 3 at the jungle theater, 2951 lyndale ave. s., minneapolis. for tickets ($28-$32) and information, see jungletheater.com.

Louis’s story begins in his childhood: raised by a mother who insulates him from the world while feeding him tales of high adventure, he runs off to London at age 16 and quickly falls in with a pearling expedition to the South Pacific. After escaping a giant octopus and a whirlpool, Louis is marooned on a tropical island where he befriends the local Aborigines, ultimately taking a native bride and becoming a great warrior before journeying back to England nearly 30 years later.

Thus for the clever conceit pulled off with flair. The audience I saw the show with—an audience that included many children—was enthralled by the cast’s energetic showmanship. Booth tells his incredible story with such gusto that we don’t care a whit whether or not it’s actually true. In their roles as Aborigines, Halaas and Strout create sympathetic characters in place of hoary (and potentially offensive) archetypes; while Cartmell repeatedly steals the show as Bruno, Louis’s faithful but nervous mutt. Evidence of the actors’ skill is the fact that one of the performance’s biggest laughs involved a non-functioning prop that we all assumed (incorrectly, Halaas revealed at the post-show reception) was intended to be non-functioning.

Where Shipwrecked! becomes more than a mere entertainment is in its treatment of Louis’s return to England, where he is shown to be first celebrated, than discredited. By its conclusion, a play that began as pure confection becomes a moving (okay, not deeply moving, but still, moving) meditation on the promise and perils of self-invention. The current Kushnermania on the local theater scene is well and justified, but don’t let it distract you from catching this madly entertaining production, one of the year’s biggest and best surprises.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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