by Gail M. Burns
What more does a man have but his name and the story he tells? Everything else is dust.
The character of Louis de Rougemont poses this question late in Shipwrecked!” at a time when he is losing both. Louis de Rougemont was a real man, but his name was not Louis de Rougemont. His story was his own because he wrote it, not because he lived it. The real man was a shadowy figure behind the character and the myth he created. He died alone and in poverty.
De Rougemont, born Henri Louis Grin, lived from 1847-1921, at the time when frontiers were vanishing and there were fewer and fewer undiscovered corners of the world. His fable of being shipwrecked in the coral sea, surviving on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe, living amongst the aborigines in the Australian outback where he was considered a god sold thousands of copies of The Wide World Magazine. Donald Margulies’ 2007 play allows de Rougemont to tell “his story” with the help of two additional actors who play all the other parts in his fantastical drama.
At Oldcastle Eric Peterson has assembled a dream cast. John Hadden anchors the play solidly as de Rougement, with a twinkle in his eye and the exuberant wonder of a child as he spins his tale. Carla Woods and David Joseph play all the other roles, and Joseph also subs for Hadden during the acrobatic scenes in which de Rougement entertains and impresses with his non-existent gymnastic skills.
While the play is about de Rougemont, this production is about David Joseph. He turns cartwheels! He walks on stilts! He rides a unicycle! And those are just his physical stunts! He is genuinely fun to watch. By the way Hadden and Woods frequently struggled to control their giggles at his antics, I assume that there is quite a bit of improv afoot at each performance.
Woods is the member of the cast new to regional audiences, and she is a delightful find. Her work as Yamba, de Rougemont’s aboriginal love interest, is touchingly human amongst Hadden’s high adventure and Joseph’s low comedy turn as her elderly father. She has a swashbuckling turn as the sea captain of the ill-fated Wonder World.
Wm. John Aupperlee (set), David Groupé (lights), and Cory Wheat (sound) have collaborated to create a complete environment for the play that can represent anywhere but which is always just a relatively empty stage. Many of the sound effects are created by the actors on stage, like watching a Foley artist at work on a radio show.
Ursula McCarty has designed quick-on-and-off costumes that actually stay on when they’re on and come off easily when they are supposed to – a vital component to a fast-moving multi-character show like this. They are modest and allow the actors a full range of movement while clearly defining character.
The weakness of the play, and this is the fault of the playwright, not this fine cast, is that de Rougemont is on stage narrating continuously. There is never a time when Hadden can catch his breath and let Joseph and Woods carry the story for a few minutes. When he needs a sip of water, and who wouldn’t during a 90 minute work-out like that, everything stops dead while he drinks.
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventure of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself) by Donald Margulies, directed by Eric Peterson, runs from May 19-June 4 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street (VT Route 9) in Bennington, Vermont. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for everyone ages eight and up. Click HERE to buy tickets
Cast: John Hadden as Louis de Rougement, Carla Woods as Player #1, and David Joseph as Player #2. Set Designer: Wm. John Aupperlee; Lighting Designer: David Groupé; Sound Designer: Cory Wheat; Costume Designer: Ursula McCarty; Stage Manager: Gary Allan Poe.