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‘Shipwrecked!’ at People’s LightBY: Bill Murphy 03.27.2012
In this entertaining true tale of a man who was either the greatest adventurer or greatest hoaxer of his time, Donald Margulies has fashioned a stimulating piece of children’s theater that will appeal to adults as well.
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment— The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself). By Donald Margulies; Jackson Phippin directed. Through April 15, 2012 at People’s Light & Theatre Company (Steinbright Stage), 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, Pa. (610) 644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.
A South Seas state of mindBILL MURPHY
In plays like Collected Stories and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends, Donald Margulies has demonstrated that he’s one of the most incisive chroniclers of contemporary urban American life. So it’s surprising to see him telling an old-fashioned adventure story set in the Victorian era.
Shipwrecked! is based on the bizarre true story of Louis de Rougemont (1847-1921), a controversial English figure at the turn of the last century. He wrote articles and delivered lectures about his alleged exploits as a sailor, shipwreck victim and castaway in the Coral Sea. He claimed that he ultimately wound up living for decades with aborigines in the Australian Outback, marrying a native woman and assuming a leadership position in her tribe, only to abandon his tribe and family and return to London because, he said, he was homesick.
Though initially de Rougemont counted Queen Victoria among his admirers, readers began to question his story, and he was denounced as a hoaxer by the Royal Geographic Society. De Rougemont ultimately ended up as a music hall attraction, regaling audiences in South Africa and Australia with tales of his alleged adventures.
Margulies frames his fast-moving play as one of de Rougemont’s music hall performances. With two assistants, the old man takes us step by step through his incredible yarn, and director Jackson Phippin’s imaginative production properly highlights the theatricality of the enterprise.
Puppetry enhances some of the characterizations, much the way it did in Julie Taymoor’s stage version of The Lion King. Turquoise sheets suggest a turbulent sea. Coconuts and other props provide exaggerated sound effects.
Graham Smith’s de Rougemont is entertainingly flamboyant and likable. In the hands of a less capable actor such a character might seem overbearing, but Smith always manages to strike the right balance.
As de Rougemont’s two assistants, James Ijames and Mary McCool assume multiple roles, from a gruff ship’s captain to de Rougemont’s aborigine bride to Queen Victoria. Ijames is especially fine as the affectionate dog that keeps de Rougemont company during his years as a castaway.
Margulies leaves it to the audience to decide if de Rougemont was telling the truth or he was the greatest hoaxer of his era. The play ends on a satisfyingly open-ended chord.
With its stress on suggestion and imagination, Shipwrecked! makes a fine introduction to theater for children. It’s one of those rare plays aimed at young people that parents can genuinely enjoy as well.♦
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