Earlier this year, The Jungle Theater had planned to present a stage version of Around the World in 80 Days , but decided instead to present Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself ), a play that could just as easily have been called Around the World in Thirty Years .
It is the story of Louis de Rougemont, a real person who, in the late 1800s, wrote a series of
enthralling magazine articles about being shipwrecked on an island near New Guinea, being rescued by natives, and living with a tribe of Aborigones in Australia for thirty years, where he was worshipped as a god. Rougemont enjoyed a brief period of celebrity while people thought his adventures were true—but when reporters picked his stories apart and revealed that he had made them up, Rougemont was denounced as a charlatan, joining what has become a long line of b.s.er-s who have bamboozled the public for fun and profit.
The Jungle has a great deal of fun recreating Rougemont’s wild adventures, and as Rougemont, Michael Booth is an exuberant, engaging narrator whose child-like enthusiasm is infectious. On the surface, the play recalls such beloved stories as Robinson Crusoe , Swiss Family Robinson , and Jules Verne’s 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea —tales Rougemont was later accused of cribbing from for his own imaginative purposes. And in tone, it unfolds like an extended vaudeville act, complete with old-fashioned theater props and sound effects.
Burbling just beneath the relentlessly entertaining surface, however, is a loving tribute to the power of stories and a rather sophisticated meta-dialogue on the nature of “truth” and the paradoxical (if not hypocritical) role the public plays in consuming the stories entertainers provide. In the theater, for example, people want to be fooled into believing that things are true—they want to believe in the magic, even (especially) when they know it’s a trick. Outside the theater, they want to believe certain stories are true as well, but are resentful when they learn that certain tales they believe to be factually true are actually fabrications. (Such writers as James Frey, Margaret Seltzer, and Herman Rosenblat are carrying Rougemont’s torch today.) The question for storytellers is: If it’s a good story, does the literal truth matter?
Making a play about this is quite clever. All theater is artifice, and here we have a play (an elaborate lie) that purports to tell the “truth” (insofar as possible) about a man who concocted elaborate adventures in his imagination (lies) that he passed off as the literal truth. By employing puppeteer Michael Sommers and sound effects by Sean Healy, stories about Rougemont riding sea turtles and seeing giant octopuses are transformed into lovingly crafted vignettes of theatrical artistry, valuable in their own right and unassailably true to the spirit of the story, even if the story itself is pure nonsense.
It is quite a feat to put together a play that works so well on all of these different levels, and director Joel Sass must be commended for making it all work seamlessly. As usual, the Jungle’s set—an old Victorian theater—is marvelous, and the production values are exquisite, as is the execution by actors Stephen Cartmell, Emily Gunyou Halaas, and Edwin Strout, all of whom play multiple characters. Shipwrecked! is a rollicking, fantastical adventure suitable for kids of all ages, and unassumingly spectacular in its own special way, one that’s hard to believe unless you see it with your own eyes.
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment continues at The Jungle Theater through June 28, jungletheater.com