The first subtitle of the Barksdale Theatre's latest production, “Shipwrecked!” proclaims that the show is “An Entertainment.” Such a reductive phrase captures only a slice of the wide range of fun offered by this enchanting adventure yarn, based on a true story. Thanks to a compelling leading man, a versatile supporting crew, and clever direction by John Moon, the production captures the charm of a Victorian-age music hall show (England's vaudeville) while also delivering a sly — if somewhat shallow — commentary on the human tendency toward self-aggrandizement.
The second subtitle of the show provides a succinct plot synopsis: “The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself).” The real-life de Rougemont was a raconteur who astounded England in 1898 with tales of being marooned on a desert island before finding a home among Australian aborigines. Played by the inimitable Joe Inscoe, de Rougemont narrates his fantastical stories with hearty melodrama while two assistants (Scott Wichmann and Carolyn Meade) play all of the supporting roles, from a heroic dog to the queen of England.
From the beginning of the play, director Moon mischievously explores the boundaries of perception and reality. Inscoe delivers the curtain speech to the audience in character. Crewmembers stand in plain sight and use various sound effect-producing contraptions to augment the action. The contrivances make the show come to such vibrant life — does it matter whether or not they are real? When similar questions about the reality of de Rougemont's tales arise near the end of the show, the plot turn gives Inscoe the chance to delve deeper into his character. What had been a delightful scenery-chewing performance becomes an unexpectedly poignant one.
If that's not attraction enough, Wichmann's portrayal of de Rougemont's trusty canine companion, Bruno, alone is worth the price of admission. Meade is given fewer comic sidelights to explore but adds a cheery sweetness to her portrayal of de Rougemont's mother and a nice roguish swagger to the boat captain who initiates him in the ways of the sea. Lynne Hartman's masterful lighting design is practically another supporting player in the show, creating scenic transitions throughout and weaving wonderful textures across Brian Barker's spare but utilitarian set.
While it's a fast-moving frolic, the intermission-free show still seemed a bit overlong as it passed the 90-minute mark. Also, the full range of de Rougemont's motivations aren't explored, leaving the main character still a bit of a mystery at the end. Even so, “Shipwrecked!” never gets hung up on these rocks, remaining an enjoyable and amusing journey to the end. S
“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment” appears at Barksdale's Willow Lawn location through Oct. 24. Tickets, which cost $40, are available at barksdalerichmond.org or by calling 282-2620.