Shipwrecked! An Entertainment might sound contradictory, even with that exclamation point. But note this play's subtitle: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself). What it promises, this captivating show — now being staged by Spinning Tree Theatre — delivers.
Louis de Rougemont, an ordinary person turned late-19th-century celebrity, was really Henri Louis Grin. He was born in Switzerland, in 1847, and began his adult life conventionally enough, working as a footman (to actress Fanny Kemble) and then as a valet in London. He eventually made his way to western Australia as the new governor's butler (a job that lasted just a few months). Still a young man, he went to sea in search of pearls.
And that's when things got interesting. The former servant showed up in England in the late 1890s as Louis de Rougemont and fed tales of 30 years shipwrecked to The Wide World Magazine, which it published — and that Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Donald Margulies has woven into this joyful diversion. The fact that de Rougemont's accounts turned out to have been largely invented didn't keep them from being devoured by a hungry public. And it doesn't prevent us.
"Truth is stranger than fiction, but de Rougemont is stranger than both," said The Wide World Magazine in June 1899, aiming to profit from the former Grin's wild claims. Margulies has masterfully incorporated the public's fascination into 90 minutes of escapism, while peering into the origin of de Rougemont's tall stories.
Spinning Tree Theatre's animated production,directed by Michael Grayman, pulls us in from its opening announcements about "lozenges," just as the "real" de Rougemont surely seduced readers and audiences. Charles Fugate takes full possession of de Rougemont's spirit, first as a boy and then as the man, as he and his skilled co-stars Jennie Greenberry and Bob Linebarger (both in multiple roles) enact the fanciful tales — and their aftermath — and command our attention.
We effortlessly absorb Margulies' dulcet dialogue (and the actors' delivery of it), which, like music, carries us along in the way that de Rougemont was transported, as a sickly child, by the adventure stories his mother read to him. Not wanting to remain housebound, as de Rougemont tells it, he sets off as a teenager to see the world. He ends up on a pearling expedition — sound familiar? — with a snarly sea captain (Greenberry) and a dog, Bruno (Linebarger, wearing dog ears).
Performed in the small space of the Paul Mesner Puppet Studio (rows are just two deep, on either side of the staging area), Fugate envelops the theater with his energy, pulling us into the whirl of his larger-than-life de Rougemont, just as he and his shipmates are dragged into the eye and the winds of a typhoon, landing him and Bruno in an unknown land confronted by natives. Afraid that they're cannibals ("What wine goes well with me?" he fears), he instead is viewed "like a god — their words," he quickly appends. This is, after all, his point of view.
In addition to sharp performances by these actors, who help us visualize what we can't see — a giant octopus rising out of the sea, for instance — the simple set and props complement the narrative. Fugate employs a dolly to depict a near drowning as he's pulled back and forth by the tide (Linebarger's Bruno grabs him with his teeth to save him), and Fugate sits astride a sea turtle (crafted by Mike Horner and Gabby Baculi) to demonstrate how he would ride on its back. Hats — lots of hats — help depict a variety of characters (costume and props designer Gary Campbell). And we hear the radio-style sound effects live (sound designer Alex Davila).
While de Rougemont's celebrity was short-lived, his notoriety was longer-lasting. By 1899, he was billed for a South African hall as "the greatest liar on earth." But Margulies is as fascinated here by de Rougemont's downfall as he is by the man's powerful storytelling. We leave the theater amused but also pondering just what, for de Rougemont/Grin, was real.