Eugene Weekly : Theater : 10.1.2009


Image Projection
Shipwrecked! promotes a certain kind of adventure
by Suzi Steffen

When an actor takes to the stage and begins to tell a story, she projects images for the audience. Those images, no matter how fantasy-based, live in our world, a world that has a history. That’s where the storytellers have a responsibility. In the Lord Leebrick’s production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), the actors do their jobs, but the storyteller, playwright Donald Margulies, does not.

Steven Coatsworth, Stephen Speidel and Zoë Grabert ride the waves in Shipwrecked! Photograph by Gretchen Drew

Shipwrecked! is a tale of an historical tale: In 1898, Henry Louis Grin wrote a first-person account of his adventures, using the pen name Louis de Rougemont. De Rougemont claimed to have gone to the South Seas on a pearl diving expedition, gotten shipwrecked on a deserted island and then lived with Aborigines in Australia for 30 years. 

The Leebrick’s actors hit every note of theatricality with exuberance and skill. Zoë Grobart and Steven Coatsworth’s kinetic energy brings the story to life as they portray instantaneous and complete character transformations with a roll of the body, an accent switch or a flip of the octopus arm. They’re simply fantastic. 

Stephen Speidel as Louis de Rougement remains at center stage for the entire show — and to improve the post-intermission bits, he needs to get his head out of the book he carries around. But his vitality and acting ability are clear.

Director Fred Gorelick deserves praise for his excellent directing, and the stagecraft of puppeteer Martha Gizara, a recent South Eugene graduate, gives the production a  slightly surreal feel. The screen works like an old magic lantern with subtly ironic effects (watch the octopus).

The New York Times recommended Shipwrecked! as a children’s play, and I can imagine that many children would enjoy the tale that de Rougemont tells. A loving mother? Check. Bedtime stories? Check. Running away from home? Check. Buried treasure? Check. Storm and shipwreck? Check. 

Meeting Aborigines whom the white male storyteller calls primitive/savage/cannibal, rescues, convinces to choose him as their leader, sleeps with and abandons when he wants to see England again?

Uh, check. Which leads me to the script. De Rougemont claimed that the Aborigines worshipped him as a god (carefully elided in the play). He also claimed to have ridden sea turtles, which was the story that got his writing debunked.

So in the early years of this century, more than 100 years after de Rougement’s tale (and with the shadow of James Frey and other memoir fabricators casting a long, unspoken shadow), Margulies wrote this play, riffing on de Rougemont’s tale. The piece is clearly about the magic of theater (using metallic sheets to create thunder! Introducing the actors by their real names at the beginning of the show! A man acting, and doing a damn great job of it, the part of a dog!) and the importance of storytelling to self-identity. The bit on theater succeeds; the bit about Investigating Storytelling involves a lot of the basic telling-rather-than-showing problem (Shakespeare is your one true lodestar? OK, yes, but show us.).

Part of the script concerns media comsumers’ need for heroes and villains; part of it concerns the energy and courage it takes to construct a story/script for public consumption. Part of it reflects classic Western world adventure-on-deserted-island stories, ranging from The Tempest to Robinson Crusoe to Treasure Island to The Swiss Family Robinson. Using de Rougemont’s love for these kinds of stories as evidence, Margulies implies that the tales read to us and the tales we read as children affect the adventures we desire and the tales we tell about ourselves as adults.

That makes the tale Margulies tells doubly important, and I am surprised that the playwright didn’t do more to deconstruct Grin/de Rougemont’s colonialist attitudes. The shockingly stereotypical “Aborigine” puppets, with their mix of 19th century stereotypes, might serve the purpose of causing the audience to doubt de Rougemont, but we need more. We need to understand how those stereotypes fit into prejudices and imperial control of England over subjected peoples  — and how, like other things about de Rougemont’s tale, they have also been debunked.

Margulies refuses to take that responsibility. De Rougemont remains a sympathetic figure to the end of the play, and that means he does more than break the hearts of 19th-century kids who believed in his story; he, and of necessity Margulies, breaks the hearts of adults who’d prefer to enjoy this 21st-century play. The so-called golden age of adventure to which Margulies hearkens with this tale were murderously real for the Aborigines who lived under British colonial rule. So, despite this play’s light tone and the actors’ talented portrayals, the picture from the magic lantern show just isn’t that funny.

We invite you to continue this discussion on the blog, where we’ve invited the director, the actors, the Leebrick’s artistic director and others to join in.


Shipwrecked! continues at the Leebrick through Oct. 17. Tix at or 465-1506. 







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