There's no exiting or entering the Goldman Theater during the thrilling first 10 minutes of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's Robinson Crusoe, and who in his right mind would want to leave anyway? In stranding Defoe's iconic shipwreck victim on his lonely island, OSF puts us right onboard the doomed vessel to be lashed by high winds, bid farewell to the overwhelmed captain (Brett Mack) and witness much panicked gadding about that feels as real as the sea salt we'd swear is hitting us in the face.

It's a technical tour de force, and it sets a standard of excitement nothing that follows it will match. Not that the energy level abates appreciably – actor Eric Hissom's survivalist capering takes care of that, while his rapid-fire delivery obviates the potential monotony of an adaptation that (via writer Jim Helsinger) has Crusoe narrating his experiences in the present tense. It works, and it sure beats talking to a volleyball. But with the liveliness comes a price: gravity. Director Michael Carleton has Hissom rush past the lonelier admissions in Crusoe's diary pages, failing to dwell on the angsty universalities that could give his plight some emotional oomph. At most times, the objective appears to be to hurry to the next laugh, of which there are many, thanks in part to a penchant for underlining primitive situations with contemporary connotations (and, at least once in Hissom's case, intonation).

The tone should toughen with the appearance of Friday (David Heron) and the attendant testing of Crusoe's swaggering (though insincere) monotheism. Yet much of their interaction is likewise played for comedy. And as we all know, Half-Naked Savage plus Funny Business equals Dangerous Ground, no matter how noble the intention. Near the very end, a hint of substance manages to poke through, indicating that Crusoe's ordeal has brought about a genuine friendship between men and not just a prototypical vaudeville duo. Up to that point, though, it's a fairly meatless Friday.

Robinson Crusoe
Through March 19
Lowndes Shakespeare Center

[email protected]


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