Fantastical tales are just so darn hard to resist. Witness the media's mad dash to follow every second of the oh-so-terrifying-ride of Balloon Boy, to pick a random example. The more implausible or exotic the story, the more we want to believe it, perhaps because most of us tend to stay earthbound (or hidebound), unlikely to be caught up in the wilder sides of life.
In 1898, Louis De Rougemont emerged out of the blue in London to stir the public imagination in a big way with his recounting of incredible mishaps, treasure, isolation, fear, bravery and cross-cultural pollination in far-off Australasia. This irresistible Frenchman gave the Victorian world a bad case of the vapors with each thrilling chapter.
Step into Everyman Theatre and you can relive the whole roller-coaster experience, thanks to a buoyant production of a diverting little work from 2007 by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies: "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself)."
The title derives from De Rougemont's published articles, which crossed the Atlantic and galvanized a whole new audience here. An 1898 New York Times article suggested that the average reader considered De Rougemont's story even better than "Robinson Crusoe." A telling observation, since — spoiler alert! — some learned folks soon questioned exactly how much truth and how much fiction might be behind those "amazing adventures."
Various issues in this fascinating chapter of late 19th-century history, from gullibility to culpability, receive only passing attention from Margulies. His emphasis is squarely on one word in that elongated title: "entertainment." He cleverly fuses the material into a one-act, 90-minute play that is as much about the joy of old-fashioned, deliciously theatrical storytelling as it is about De Rougemont himself and his astonishing claims.
In an effort to recapture something of the increasingly distant past, before computerized special effects onstage started approaching those in the movies, "Shipwrecked!" calls for deliberately low-tech methods. Other than bubble wrap, which works very nicely to imitate a crackling fire, most of the sound-making devices employed in this staging could have been put to the same purposes on early radio dramas decades ago.
"Shipwrecked!" is also a throwback to the good old days in another way — multiple, change-on-a-dime roles. Baltimore theater-goers have seen quite a lot of this sort of thing lately, including "The Thirty-Nine Steps" at the Hippodrome and "Travels With My Aunt" at Rep Stage. And it's deja vu all over again at Everyman, where "Shipwrecked!" features the same stars, Bruce R. Nelson and Clinton Brandhagen, who dove last season into the wacky, several-characters-per-actor "Irma Vep."
Nelson has a single role this time out, that of De Rougemont, and he relishes the opportunity to focus all his energy on one (albeit very complicated) fellow. The actor doesn't just bring out the colorful, confident side of the self-proclaimed hero of this tale, but also the child inside, looking for attention and glory and, ultimately, sympathy.
Brandhagen has only something like 15 assignments. He embraces and delineates them all with aplomb, but scores extra points exploring his inner canine to amusing effect as Bruno, De Rougemont's trusty dog.
The lithe and vibrant Tuyet Thi Pham proves quite the trouper as well in her portrayal of 10 figures, male and female, who inhabit De Rougemont's world. Three nimble stagehands deftly handle the sound effects and other duties crucial to coloring in the black-and-white outlines of the plot.
Derek Goldman's supple direction has the action unfolding swiftly on Daniel Ettinger's understated, accommodating set, which gets good mileage from a revolving stage and gains atmosphere from Jay Herzog's lighting. Gail Stewart Beach's evocative costume design is another asset.
"Shipwrecked!" has been marketed as a family-friendly show, and this homage to the treasured art of storytelling certainly ought to find favor with young people. Some of them might be quite surprised how vivid words alone can be (as when De Rougemont describes his first experience of falling in love as "a bit like seasickness, but without the vomiting"), and how easily the mind can be engaged without benefit of a smart phone.
As for De Rougemont's own mind, it's hard to know exactly what was going on deep down in there. But he had an unusual gift, that's for sure. It's fun to spend time in his company via this breezy play, and Everyman's typically stylish production makes that experience even more agreeable.
If you go
"Shipwrecked!" runs through Oct. 24 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Showtimes vary. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.