If Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s beloved comedy Twelfth Night has picked up his (sometimes misbegotten) ideas of love from hearing enchanting strains of music, Louis de Rougemont, the self-proclaimed narrator/protagonist/hero/villain of Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment has gotten his ideas about adventure from books. The Odyssey, Robinson Caruso, Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—he’s read them all, and his fanciful ideas about what makes a life worth living come from his childhood obsession with such tales of danger and adventure.
In Moonbox’s current production, running in rep with Twelfth Night and directed by Allison Olivia Choat, de Rougemont (Kevin Cirone) mostly addresses the audience, turning to us with a wink and a smile. In a painfully overwrought British accent, he shares his life’s story (in his own words, we are repeatedly reminded). He even uses chapters to organize his fate: “Chapter Four” he begins one episode, “in which I face an uncertain future.” We cannot help but laugh at his boldness.
What began as a sickly childhood with an overdose of action-packed bedtime stories soon turns into a far-flung adventure tale, fit with sea turtles and tribal battles: boy moves to London, boy meets sea captain, boy joins crew, crew meets maelstrom, boy miraculously survives, boy washes up on an island, boy meets natives, becomes chief, returns to London after 30 years, tells his tale, boy (now a man) enters the annals of glory. His days in the sun are limited, however, as journalists start to poke holes in his story.
Like many shows being presented to audiences today, Shipwrecked!, it turns out, is a show about capital ‘T’ truth. At one point the play asks outright, “Truth! What is truth?” and prods the audience to wonder: who is the real fool? Is it the aging, desperate man who makes up a tale of grandeur about himself or the everyday schmucks who believe it?
However much it tries to capture and question the slipperiness of truth in the stories we tell one another about ourselves, the play’s more serious notes feel rushed and incomplete. Its more lighthearted, if irritating, tones are the more successful ones. Choat and her cast are not oblivious to the play’s relentless tongue-in-cheekiness. They play into it every chance they can with clever sound effects, sharp prop manipulation, exaggerated acting, and jolly ditties. Perhaps we ought to take Shipwrecked! as the title suggests, merely “an entertainment,”—and luckily a 90 minute one at that.
By pairing Shipwrecked! with Twelfth Night, Moonbox gives us two tales of faked identities and foreign sands. Whereas de Rougemont imagines himself living a valiant and exciting life on a distant isle, Viola (Charlotte Kinder) actually experiences a week or so disguised as the Duke’s man, Cesario. Masquerading as a young man, she both falls in love with the Duke Orsino (played by a fratty Evan Turassini) and manages to woo the object of the Duke’s affection, Countess Olivia (Sarah Gazdowicz), who has no reason to believe Viola is anything but a sensitive young man. When Viola’s twin brother winds up alive, having survived the same shipwreck as Viola, the lovers work themselves out as they always do in Shakespeare’s comedies.
Meanwhile the Countess’s head butler Malvolio (played by the eerily ageless Matthew Zahnzinger) is made a fool of for thinking himself beloved of Olivia and fantasizing about becoming her husband. While Feste the fool (Arthur Gomez) sings and Sir Toby Belch (Robert D. Murphy) laughs, Malvolio is tricked into imaging himself at Olivia’s side, decked out in velvet. Like the eventual treatment of de Rougemont, a mockery awaits Malvolio when he thinks himself higher than his station. To reach beyond one’s stars is to be made a fool of, both Shipwrecked! and Twelfth Night demonstrate to some extent.
Moonbox has seemed to take the message to heart. Their presentation of Twelfth Night is anything but unusual. Its moves are sweet but predictable, nothing out of step with how Shakespeare is often performed. Thus, the performance is safeguarded from mockery, if lacking ingenuity.