Shipwrecked! An Entertainment could float your boat

The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) through February 25 at the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. Juliet Wittman caught the production last weekend; here's her review:

We're all fascinated by talented fakers. I once foolishly allowed a convict to parole to my house, and she turned out to have an amazing capacity for lying. Her lies were pretty mundane: She said she had a job when she didn't, that she'd kicked the drug habit when she hadn't, that she needed money to buy my daughter a birthday present -- and would pay it back. That kind of thing. But she lied with such emotion, charm and conviction that she upended my sense of reality and made me doubt the evidence of my own senses. Of course she hadn't stolen checks from my checkbook, she explained. Another woman she'd known in prison had sneaked in and done it -- leaving that hypodermic needle in the pocket of my apron at the same time. Fixing her luminous, beautiful eyes on my face, Joanna explained to me once how you beat a lie detector test: You just have to believe -- really believe -- that everything you're saying is true. Which she always managed to do.

Perhaps if I could have seen her fabrications as a kind of art form, as narrative pure and simple -- and if they hadn't upended my life -- I'd have actually enjoyed them.

The lies that intrigued playwright Donald Margulies were those of a nineteenth-century con man. His Shipwrecked! An Entertainment--The Amazing Adventures of Louise de Rougemont (As Told by Himself) is a ninety-minute yarn about adventures on the high seas, based on serialized articles the real-life de Rougemont wrote for Wild World Magazine in London.

In de Rougemont's life and work, "I saw the potential for a purely theatrical play about the power of imagination," Margulies writes. He also mentions the case of author James Frey, who was found to have falsified his best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. (It tells you something about time and culture that where the Victorians were suckers for stories of risk and adventure, most of our bestsellers describe childhood victimization, trauma and addiction.)

De Rougemont's story is one of a sickly young Englishman who takes to the sea on a pearl fishing boat, endures hardships and shipwreck, of course, and lives for several years among Australia's aborigines -- one of whom, Yamba, becomes his wife and the mother of his two children. He acquires a faithful dog, Rufus, sees flying wombats and rides on the backs of giant turtles.

England has a long history of maritime conquest and exploration, and tales of seafaring were a staple at the time. There was also a lot of curiosity about the indigenous people of England's colonies. Londoners turned out in droves in 1868 for a cricket match featuring an aboriginal team from Australia: "Although several of them are native bushmen, and all are as black as night, these Indian fellows are to all intents and purposes, clothed and in their right minds," commented a writer for the Telegraph. In this context, de Rougement's treatment of race can be seen as relatively enlightened -- though he (or his invented self) shows no concern at all about leaving his aboriginal family.

Margulies's approach isn't particularly deep or analytic, but his understanding of narrative and staging makes for an entertaining evening. He lets de Rougemont tell the story straightforwardly, assisted by two actors who each play several roles. Watching the play is a bit like listening to an engrossing bedtime story, and I imagine it should work as well for kids -- at least those over ten -- as for adults.

Josh Hartwell has no problem holding audience attention as a sympathetic, slightly anxious de Rougemont. Implausible as the story is, he makes you at least half believe it. Lindsey Pierce and Stephen Weitz have a great time in a number of supporting roles: She's a crusty Irish sea captain; he's Rufus (a role he plays with such good-humored relish that you feel just the tiniest real qualm when the poor old dog dies). She's Yamba. He's Queen Victoria. They're both hilarious as a couple of gossipy, tea-sipping upper-class British women.

It's fun. And brief enough to let you to indulge in some tall tales of your own afterwards -- preferably over a drink or two.

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself). will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 23 (with a talk-back between the cast and audience at 9 p.m.), and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 24 and Saturday, February 25. There's also a special family performance at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The shows are all at the the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street in Boulder. Buy tickets are get more information here.

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