"Shipwrecked!" is stuffed from port to starboard with kid-friendly storytelling and the power of the imagination.
The adventure story by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, which opens at the Everyman Theatre Friday, has fantastic sea creatures and "tribes" of aborigines represented by intentionally rudimentary puppets. The sound effects are created on stage in full view of the audience. And just three actors (Clinton Brandhagen, Bruce Nelson and Tuyet Thi Pham) portray more than two dozen roles.
The play — its full title is "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself)" — is the first production in Everyman Theatre's history aimed at a family audience. (It's recommended for children ages 6 and older).
"This is a chance to pull your child or grandchild away from the tube for a minute to show them how exciting the creative process can be by using simple, everyday objects and turning them into magic," said Vincent Lancisi, Everyman's artistic director.
"Shipwrecked" represents a departure for Everyman, which is known for staging productions of shows with very adult subject matter, such as pedophilia, or a family torn apart by the death of a child.
But over the years, audience members have occasionally asked Lancisi to program kid-friendly shows. On the one hand, he's never been much interested in children's theater. But he also has a vested interest as a theater professional in introducing the next generation to the art form. So when, after a year of trying, Everyman was offered the rights to produce Margulies' script, Lancisi jumped at the chance.
" 'Shipwrecked!' wasn't written for children, but there isn't a single swear word in it," he says. "There's no violence and no sexual innuendo. And, like a good 'Bugs Bunny' cartoon, adults will laugh at it, as well."
The play is based on the real-life story of de Rougemont, an adventurer who regaled Great Britain with his exploits in the early 20th century, and of whom it once was said, "Truth is stranger than fiction. But de Rougemont is stranger than both."
As a teenage boy, young Louis signed up for a pearl-diving expedition. A storm destroyed his ship and he was cast adrift near an island off the coast of Australia. After living for many years with only a dog for company, he said, he later made connections with a tribe of aborigines who came to worship him as a god.
The picaresque story line and light-hearted narrative tone also represent a departure for Margulies, whose most-lauded works scrutinize personal relationships ("Dinner With Friends") and explore the creative process ("Collected Stories"). But as is true of all of his plays, "Shipwrecked!" investigates the complicated question of what makes a work of art authentic.
The playwright found himself "drawn to a story about the very nature of storytelling," he wrote in an essay published in 2007 in the Los Angeles Times.
"My aim was to capture the attention of the hidden child in everyone in the audience," Margulies wrote.
" I wanted to write a play that would make no attempt to replicate on stage what television and movies do, but would instead celebrate the uniqueness of theater. My impulse was to strip away the trappings of spectacle and get back to what theater does best: tell stories that reflect our world or create new ones."
Everyman officials know that different marketing techniques are needed to appeal to children, and they realize that purchasing tickets for an entire family can be a pricey proposition. So the company is introducing a $10 ticket for students to all Sunday night performances.
"We're telling everyone that this is their chance to introduce their family to our family," says Everyman's marketing manager, David Alima.
In addition, this production of "Shipwrecked" contains some special touches of which de Rougemont himself would be proud. For instance, members of the Urban Pirates, which conducts family adventure cruises in the Inner Harbor, will attend selected shows of 'Shipwrecked!' in costume.
There's no question that the swashbuckling, grog-swilling terrors of the open seas are very much in the spirit of the traveler's tales.
If, as it happens, the play itself doesn't include any actual cutthroats … well, that's a technicality that the audience is encouraged to overlook.
After all, that's what de Rougemont would do.
If you go
"Shipwrecked!" opens Friday and runs through Oct. 24 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10-$45. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.