Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), at Primary Stages in New York, breaks the mold of playwright Donald Margulies’s typical style. Among others, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends is a staunchly realist piece about family (or more broadly kinship) relations; A Model Apartment is a slightly more expressionistic story of family trauma that draws on the Holocaust for its central metaphor about avarice, boundaries, and people’s inability to outrun a horrific collective past. Shipwrecked!, on the other hand, is a romp, a biographical tall-tale told in direct address by a late 19th century British voyager named Louis de Rougemont, a bit of a mountebank who imparts his fantastical life story to the present theatre audience he acknowledges openly.
Played with great verve and charm by Michael Countryman, de Rougemont is a foppish but sincere storyteller, fully aware of the irony of his tale but completely committed to winning us over, chapter by theatrical chapter, the title of each of which he announces with great physical and emotional energy. On a stripped down stage bare to the narrow theatre’s brick walls, Countryman spins a fantastical yarn that by its end is cast into troubling doubt. By relating de Rougemont’s idiosyncratic rise and fall, Margulies addresses how and why human beings come of age in certain directions and not others, as well as how we convince ourselves and others of the truthfulness of the stories we tell about ourselves. The allegory coursing beneath the story is as relevant and contemporary as James Frey’s fabrication of parts of his memoir, or any number of recent literary embellishments of publicly narrated personal truths.
But at heart, Margulies’s Shipwrecked! is a play about theatre and the imagination, an enchanting demonstration of how the simplest tools of this illusionist trade can conjure richly drawn, far flung worlds in which we can briefly invest our emotions. On a slightly raked small round platform in the center of the playing space, de Rougemont tells his tale. Dressed in the linen and cotton vestments of the mid- to late-1800s British middle class, he describes his sequestered youth as a sickly child whose over-protective mother reads him adventure stories that stoke his desire to cast off on his own.
When he turns 17, he leaves his mother’s womb-like protection to seek his fortune, and meets instead his fate. The dissolute captain of a pearl-diving expedition in the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia takes him on as a ship’s mate. But when the greedy skipper refuses to turn back from the treasures he’s found in the face of an apocalyptic storm, the boat capsizes and only de Rougemont and the trusty ship’s dog, Bruno, survive. They drift alone at sea until they’re cast ashore on an island where they provide one another’s sole companionship for the many years of their lonely exile.
After some time, an Aboriginal family who’s also been lost at sea drift ashore and de Rougemont persuades them with effusively reassuring gestures that he means them no harm. The little community of shipwrecked survivors—our “hero,” Bruno the dog, the Aboriginal daughter, her elderly father, and her young brother—overcomes differences of language, race, and culture to build a life of love and kinship. De Rougemont instantly falls in love with the daughter. Eventually, her homesickness inspires him to build a boat that returns the four of them (five including the aging dog) to her tribe, where de Rougemont is greeted as royalty and given a place of local pride.
After his native wife bears him two daughters—both called by names properly English and anachronistic in the Aboriginal outback—de Rougemont’s own homesickness dictates that he find his way back to London, where the tale of his adventures meets first with adulation and then with suspicion. Presenting his story to the Royal Academy, de Rougemont is shouted down and defamed by scientists who dispute the “facts” of his story, including his insistence that he “steered” a giant wild sea turtle with his feet during his time alone on the island.
He is eventually disgraced by investigating journalists who suggest that rather than cavorting as a lonely survivor on a Coral Sea island, or lording over an Aboriginal tribe, de Rougemont actually married and then abandoned a working class woman in Sydney. With disdain, they charge that he never even nearly accomplished the adventures of which he boasts.
The devastated tall-tale-teller tries to reestablish his reputation; in the play’s final scene, he triumphs by riding on the back of a sea turtle whose direction he indeed controls by poking his toes into either of its eyes, theoretically proving that the story of his life is, in fact, true. But the fact that Countryman rides a reptile that’s clearly wooden, circling around on its back by virtue of the revolving turntable under the stage, finally proves only that theatre lets us imagine just about anything.
Shipwrecked! is a light diversion with a built in “so what” factor. The story is sweet and Countryman’s telling is virtuosic, especially as assisted by Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays, two terrific performers who circulate through the variety of supporting roles that help propel the performance. Bobb and Grays and various stagehands—almost Bunraku-style—openly provide the aural and visual atmosphere that makes the story so evocative. Part of the production’s fun is in fact seeing the effects produced in a poor-theatre style that underlines how simply theatre can conjure other worlds. Fantastic storms are evoked with sheets of metal, a large thundering drum, and a mobile of tinkling, anachronistic house keys, punctuated by effects that send blinding white light shuttering across the stage.
Shipwrecked!’s transformational acting style is presentational but not Brechtian. That is, while the quicksilver physical changes allow Bobb to play the drooling, lick-happy Bruno in one second, and transform into the leg-clinging brother of the Aboriginal woman in the next, the schizophrenic style isn’t meant to provoke political commentary on the vicissitudes of history and agency. Instead, with clear and clarifying quick changes in posture, diction, and facial expression, Bobb and Grays illustrate the tale more than they historicize its meanings.
Both supporting actors make their lightning fast transitions with clarity, grace, and commitment, conjuring various worlds and broadly drawn characters with great care, fun and, curiously, humanity. That is, although each character is something of a stereotype—the Aborginal elder and other tribesmen, who carry spears and speak in a guttural invented language; the drunken, careless sea captain; the self-satisfied journalists who prove de Rougemont’s undoing; the ladies who take tea while gossiping about his misadventures; and even de Rougemont’s warmly suffocating mother—Bobb and Grays nonetheless draw them with enough detail and affection to keep from offending.
In addition to the pure joy of watching and hearing backstage effects produce imaginative displays of place, sound, and atmosphere, and seeing acting that demonstrates how mobile, physically virtuosic bodies and voices can inhabit a variety of lives, Margulies’s point seems to be that cultural representations—writ here in the adventure stories that tell young Louis what his life should be—influence our coming of age in ways that require us to measure up to their excesses.
What is a life if it’s not full of the life-threatening thunderstorms or encounters with “savages” and “cannibals” in which de Rougemont prevails by displaying the impressive acrobatic feats he’s taught himself in his solitary years as a castaway? What do our lives mean if we can’t point to our own heroism and our ability to connect with human beings different from ourselves, if we can’t retell how we succeeded in meeting our own primal need for connection, respect, and love, however much we might need to fabricate or embellish?
De Rougemont’s ultimate disgrace comes at the hands of a mercurial public who shifts too quickly from adoration to disgust. His downfall resonates with the culturally constructed plight of notorious contemporary stars who can’t withstand the scrutiny of media that both feeds our need for heroes and stokes our self-righteous desire to see them unmasked as only human after all. De Rougemont’s hubris is that he thinks he can be “real” in a world that’s always only illusion, and that he can stand out as “true” in a story that’s as theatrical and imaginary as its illustrative sound effects.
In the meantime, Shipwrecked! offers the simple pleasures of a story well-told and a supremely well acted and smoothly directed (by the talented, always effective Lisa Peterson), quickly paced theatrical divertissement. Its only troubling aspect is Margulies’s treatment of the Aboriginal family as “savages” who need to be civilized, and de Rougemont’s description of his meeting with their tribe as a confrontation with “cannibals.”
That his wife is played by Grays, a terrifically accomplished African American actress, makes those parts of the story wincingly, if unintentionally, racist. When de Rougemont becomes a member of the tribe’s royalty, his colonialist adventures reek of the white man’s burden; when his desire to return home overwhelms his happiness with his native wife, he curses the time he’s “wasted” in the outback, suggesting that his love for her and his daughters was less vital and important than his devotion to his trusty, finally dead dog, whom we see him bury with tenderness and grief.
Finally, then, even though the story is pleasant and its theatricality a thrilling reminder that all we need to create new worlds is a few boards and supple, mobile bodies and willing souls, these moments of unthought colonialism are sad reminders that heroic adventure stories remain the province of straight white men who conquer the “savage” other before they return triumphantly home to the bosom of “civilization.” De Rougemont’s disgrace doesn’t redeem the fact that he’s told his story with less humanity than he means to convey. Shipwrecked! makes him a hero with whom it’s difficult to identify or ultimately to applaud.
The Feminist Spectator