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Colonial Players’ Shipwrecked

Amazing stories brought to life with astonishing effect — this is theater at its best

Robert Tucker, John Halmi and Christina Enoch Kemmerer. <photo by Colburn Images>>

For good old-fashioned escapist entertainment, Annapolis has never seen the likes of Colonial Players’ Shipwrecked. Commissioned by a children’s theatre, this play is unlike both Donald Margulies’ other plays and much of what dominates local stages during winter months.  Audiences of all ages will love the story and Colonial’s innovative presentation.
    The prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright — who is also a professor at Yale — began with the experiences of Louis de Rougemont, a Victorian era survivor of a capsized pearling vessel. De Rougemont’s adventures were so varied, suspenseful and romantic that they sold millions of magazines and made him an international celebrity — until his veracity was questioned. But voyages with deadly whirlpools, desert isles, magnificent beasts, buried treasure and Aborigines make for great copy whether or not the raconteur is to be believed. This production brings the story to life with astonishing effect.
    As de Rougemont, John Halmi is an animated and warm host of dignified bearing who conveys the wide-eyed wonder of the juvenile. Listening as he reenacts his early adventures, you feel more like an honored guest than a ticket holder.
    Two gymnastic assistants, Robert Tucker and Christina Enoch Kemmerer, convey nearly 100 roles by changes of attitude, posture, costumes and props. Their mime of pearl divers is spellbinding ballet. Tucker’s portrayal of a dog seems so lifelike you’ll scan the stage for drool. His diminutive tribal king is hilarious for his imposing carriage, and his repartee with Kemmerer in improvised tribal dialogue is hilarious.
    Their energy is exhausting as they careen from one character to another while creating delightfully primitive special effects. In their hands, crinkling paper sounds like fire, a fabric friction barrel whines like hurricane force winds, and floppy sheet metal thunders. Similarly, a trunk can be what it appears to be — or a boat or a sea turtle.
    Director Ron Giddings’ inspiration for this “poor theatre” was Broadway’s Warhorse set designer, who argues there’s no point in theater’s trying to compete with film. Thus, the actor’s voice and body skills should be the primary spectacle on stage. This return to basics offers a richer theater experience than modern audiences, used to sophisticated sound and light systems, might expect, rather like revisiting a lost art.
    The one concession the director should have made to modernity is in ambient lighting, particularly in the prologue, which is delivered from center stage by the light of one bare bulb that obscures the actor and blinds the audience to the lower light levels that follow.
    Once the voyage is under way, though, all is forgiven as we sit enraptured for the duration of the nearly two-hour show, advertised at 90 minutes without intermission. The ending is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, as that is the slowest and saddest part, but no one leaves the theater yawning. The opening night audience sprang to an immediate standing ovation at curtain.
    What a shame it only runs for three weeks, and with more limited seating than usual. In a worthy sacrifice, a section of the theater-in-the-round has been removed to accommodate a proscenium stage, complete with scallop-shelled footlights, in the style of a Vaudevillian theater.
    This don’t-miss show is a treat for the whole family. It should earn serious recognition in theater awards season.

Playing thru Jan. 26. Th-S 8pm; Su 2 & Jan. 20 7:30pm at Colonial Players, 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts: 410-268-7373; www.cplayers.com.