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A CurtainUp Review
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment
The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)
By Elyse Sommer
Consider yourself too earthbound for your inner child to respond unquestioningly to the amazing adventures of Louis de Rougemont— the invented persona of a man born Henri Louis Grin in 1847 who, after years as a servant and failed entrepreneur, who cast himself as the hero of a series of magazine adventure stories? No matter.
To be sure this is a conceit to nab audiences of all ages with a small cast and low-tech production values that should make this easy to put on in all sorts of budget-constrained venues. However, even the most sophisticated theater goer will be astonished, and charmed, Michael Countryman as de Rougemont— whether as a sickly child, an adventurer, a literary celebrity or a defiant dreamer in the face of failure. Further astonishment, and delight, is provided by Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays, who contribute the simple but cogent sound effects and portray or give voice to a diverse cast of characters. Bobb is an irresistible dog named Bruno and a hilarious Queen Victoria and should be given a starring role sooner rather than later. Grays handles husky-voiced men as well as de Rougemont's loving mother and wife. The pair segues from character to character with timing that is mind boggling.
To get right into the story-telling spirit, Margulies wrote his script so that de Rougemont uses the usual recorded or house manager announcements about fire exits, noise-making devices and candy to make contact with the audience. And while his story's leanings are in the direction of magic realism, it's presented chronologically, picturing de Rougemont as a bedridden boy whose mother keeps him entertained with books about travel and adventure as well as Shakespeare's plays. By age sixteen the boy refuses to remain housebound and heads off to experience the world he's only read about. A meeting with a seaman sends him on a voyage that ends per the title, with de Rougemont shipwrecked on a tiny island with only Bruno, the dog, for company— that is, until an aborigine father and daughter are washed ashore. The threesome learns to communicate and he accompanies them back to their native island where he and the girl marry and raise children. His wife recognizing that he's homesick for England as she was for her island, encourages him to return and when he does, he publishes his story in a magazine and becomes famous—-and, eventually, infamous.
While Shipwrecked was commissioned by California's South Coast Repertory as a children's play, the staging for an all-ages audience has not abandoned its childlike, tall tale quality or the playwright's intention to use it as a means to examine the very nature of artifice and story telling. Director Lisa Peterson has seen to it that the actors and designers have heeded his stage notes. Countryman, Bobb and Grays do indeed avoid "cuteness and sentimentality" and never resort to "facile caricatures." Set designer Neil Patel does indeed give the audience a chance to really exercise their imaginations as radio play listeners used to do, with a set design that is, as called for," minimal but elegant." John Gromada's sound design and original music is execurted by the actors in full sight of the audience. Michael Krass's costumes are a bit more elaborate than the idea of kids raiding their parents' closets for a game of dress-up suggested. However, they're terrific and they certainly showcase the actors' quick-change artistry.
For all the excellence of the performances and the impressively imaginative staging, Shipwrecked, calls on us to be star-gazers a bit longer than necessary. I for one would not have minded having de Rougmont ride off on his turtle at least ten minutes sooner. Still, hats off to Mr. Margulies, for understanding why Picasso said that it took him 30 years to shake off his formal training and paint like a child again.