All (audience) hands on deck for ‘Shipwrecked!’

“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself),” written by Yale playwriting professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies, is now in production at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. While Margulies’ propensity for tackling modern societal issues is evident in “Shipwrecked!” he chooses to take a non-traditional presentational route, calling for an involved audience and dynamic director. Margulies will hold a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea on March 6.

Q: Why tell this story?

A: I love to surprise people. If you look closely, it’s been there all along. It just took a different form, that’s all. The story is not original, but quintessential of its time. It is the story of a guy who leaves home and goes on a journey and encounters all of these obstacles that he overcomes and then succumbs to temptation or deceit. This is a picaresque. It’s not an original story, but that’s true of every story that is told. It’s how they’re told that makes us sit up and identify, reunify, all that stuff. The opportunity that this play has given actors and designers and directors is that they’re just playing.

Q: Did you have a particular design aesthetic or theme you imagined?

A: The play. It gets everyone to play again. People who maybe have lost that sense of play and have forgotten how enjoyable it could be to just imagine things. That was my objective.

Q: Was the bare-bones nature of this production inspired by Brecht or Wilder?

A: I’m not a big Brecht disciple, but there is a kind of Wilder in a few of his plays that is just startlingly modern, and deconstructive, breaking down the essence of theater. For me, Brecht is always didactic and overtly political, and I always preferred plays that were subversively political, so the inspiration for this is everything that I loved. There are movies, Loonie Tunes, Rocky and Bullwinkle, The 3 Stooges, Vaudeville, I learned from my grandfather. That’s what this is, a compendium of popular culture for me, that people seem to be responding to greatly.

Q: Do you think of this play as a commentary on Broadway’s spectacle-filled efforts?

A: My objective is to give theatrical imagination back to the audience. Broadway designers have millions of dollars at their disposal and are basically simulating movies. And here, to resort to the primal elements of theater and reduce it to sound, light, action, and to use the most primitive kitchen-sink-type things — found instruments — it’s just thrilling to see people thinking back to their own childhood — whether it’s someone who’s eight thinking back to when they were six, or 80 thinking back to when they were six.

Q: What’s your take on Shipwreck’s positive response from older audiences?

A: The play started out as a commission for “Plays for Young Audiences” at the South Coast Repertory. My hope was that it would work for all generations. When I first saw it read, it was in front of a mature, older audience, and the response was really eye-opening. I did not expect this from the outgo. It was really thrilling to defy generations. I wanted children to appreciate it on one level, which they seem to do.

Q: Do you think that younger people understand the controversial subject matter?

A: I don’t know that they grasp the existential dilemma, but the issues in the play are ripe for discussion. Michael Countryman, who plays the lead, told me that he read the play to his daughter and said she was just rapt just having him read the story to her. And when he got to the part when the debunking occurs, she said, “Wait a minute, he made it up?” It’s such a great genuine response. Even though kids may not grasp all the moral concepts, I think they certainly understand the idea of storytelling and the extremes of storytelling. When does a story become a lie? How relevant is it whether you lived what you tell? I can’t answer that question, but I think it’s a really good one.

Q: What were your favorite stories as a kid?

A: I wasn’t a big fantasy reader, but I sure loved my Robinson Crusoe, and I read a lot of Classics Illustrated. They were basically comic books based on classic narratives, a sort of precursor to the graphic novel — Hamlet as a comic book, the Scarlet Letter as a comic book. So a lot of the introduction that I had to the classic tomes was through Classics Illustrated. I was a voracious reader.

Q: Where do you see Shipwrecked going next?

A: The play will have a life around the country in regional theater. Every production will be different, yet the essence of it will be the same. There are elements of this production that are uncannily similar to the South Coast Rep. production, with me providing very little in the way of stage directions. They just have found the same moment, which is really interesting.

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