By Ruth Ross
Tales of exotic adventures have tantalized people for centuries. Marco Polo and Benjamin of Tudela penned memoirs about their travels to the Far East. Nellie Bly chronicled her trip around the world in 80 days. Louis de Rougement wrote one too. The first three may sound familiar, but who is Louis de Rougement?
Louis de Rougement is a historical figure who claimed to have survived 30 years on a remote island where he landed after being shipwrecked. When he returned to society, he became a celebrity, writing and publicly performing tales of his adventures that left late 19th-century English audiences spellbound—that is, until his story began to unravel.
In Shipwrecked: An Entertainment, playwright Donald Margulies uses classical theatrics and storytelling techniques to bring us “The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself).” Now onstage at Dreamcatcher Rep in Summit in a superb production that careens from continent to continent, from ocean to ocean, the show follows the narrator (Louis, himself) as he sets out to discover the world for himself.
On a stage cluttered with a myriad of props and costumes assembled by Laura Ekstrand, three accomplished actors portray 30 different roles, frenetically donning and doffing hats, aprons, vests and jackets, and providing a range of sound effects designed by Jeff Knapp to provide auditory atmosphere to the account. Shadow play and lighting (kudos to Nathan Avakian) further enhance this “fantastic and amazing story.” The result is a delightful vaudeville-style romp that enfolds a serious meditation on how far people are willing to blur the line between fact and fiction in an attempt to leave their mark on the world.
Shipwrecked tells the tale of a sickly boy who leaves home as a teenager, signs on as a mate for a sea captain embarking on a expedition to hunt for pearls in the southern Pacific, only to find himself marooned on a tiny speck of land when a storm wrecks the ship. There he resides for 30 years, marrying and raising a family, until his homesickness becomes so overwhelming that he flags down a passing ship and returns to England.
As Louis, Harry Patrick Christian (top, left) acts as narrator and actor. Onstage and talking nonstop during the 90-minute play, he literally works up a sweat. With infectious and exhausting energy, Christian hooks us with his enthusiasm and wild tales of Louis’ high-seas adventure, told with a wide-eyed innocence that makes him sound very credible, despite some of the fantastical details. Did a monstrous man-eating octopus really grab a fellow sailor and sweep him overboard? Did Louis really ride giant sea turtles? Did he really see flying wombats?
The two other actors, Nicole Callender and Scott McGowan (top right, with Christian), portray 30 characters, morphing from one to another in the wink of an eye by donning a hat or assuming an accent. McGowan is especially winning as Bruno, a dog who befriends Louis on the ship and also survives the wreck. Callender is hilarious as Louis’ mother and native wife, and she and McGowan have a grand time portraying, among other characters, a pair of snobbish English society matrons as well as various aborigines.
These hijinks are deftly directed by Jack Tamburri at a hectic pace that prevents the action from lagging for even one second. Indeed, we are given no time to really think or question the details of Louis’ account; Christian’s delivery enthralls us and leads us to believe that what he tells us is true. Watching him deflate as his truthfulness is examined in a very funny Q&A session is almost sad.
With all the recent talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” Shipwrecked is a worthy exploration of society’s gullibility and propensity for celebrity worship. Although the play was written in 2006 about a person who lived over a century before, Donald Margulies reminds us that people really don’t change. Indeed, here in America, P.T. Barnum built an entertainment empire on the cynical idea that “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
The real Louis de Rougement may have been exposed as a fraud, but in Dreamcatcher Rep’s delicious production, we almost don’t mind being conned. At least we’re being entertained in the process—and the effect doesn’t have global ramifications.
Shipwrecked: An Entertainment, will be performed at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Ave., Summit, through March 5. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. There will be a talkback with the director and actors immediately following the February 26 matinee. For information and tickets visit www.dreamcatcherrep.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 800.838.3006.
Reviewed by Ruth Ross @ njartsmaven.com