After a bitter storm, Louis de Rougemont (Michael Countryman) finds himself marooned on a remote island. Miles away from everything he has ever known, Louis wanders the desolate beach when suddenly a flash catches his eye. He stops, scooping up a jar filled with pearls — the very treasure that he had been hunting when the storm hit, worth so much then and so little now. He looks at the audience and says, confidentially, “I laughed with bitter irony.” And then he does.
Louis’s self-conscious narration is the trademark of “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself).” Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies, the play begins with Louis relating and reenacting his fantastic adventures, asserting that every word is true. Quickly, however, the narrative descends into the improbable: After his pearling boat is caught in a storm and he is shipwrecked on a remote island, Louis rides sea turtles for fun and eventually marries an aboriginal wife. He returns home to write of his adventures and gains fame and fortune in mid-19th century London. Yet, after about an hour of the play, it comes out that Louis’s amazing story is most likely a complete fabrication — he is discredited and reviled, left to spend his days in penniless ignominy. Despite all this, the pitiful Louis insists on the truth of his story until the very end.
For all its hijinks and adventure, “Shipwrecked!” reveals itself to be a meditation on the nature of story itself. The promised light-hearted entertainment is commandeered, serving as a portal into serious questions of truth and fiction, storytelling and deceit — questions that have been asked for ages by novelists and dramatists alike. Yet the play’s insight is vague and the central conceit remains unresolved at the end, despite an impressive display by Countryman as Louis. His two assistants, played by Angela Lin and Jeff Biehl, likewise inhabit their many parts admirably, though it is Biehl who excels with an exceptional sense of comic timing. Ultimately, however, “Shipwrecked!” neither wholly delivers what it promises (“an entertainment”) nor quite makes good on its hints at deeper, redeeming themes.
Instead, as the grandeur of story is stripped away piece by piece, it prompts the question: what is left? “Shipwrecked!” provides no clear answer. The tricks of theater lend the story a sense of thrill and magic in the earliest scenes, but their power peters out by the end. From the very beginning, the audience is “in” on the secrets of the show, watching scene changes, sound effects and even prompting on stage. Louis’s two assistants take on a myriad of characters (and accents), from the crotchety pearling boat captain to Louis’s faithful canine companion. The dramatic lighting shamelessly hams up Louis’s wild account, and it is no secret that Margulies and director Evan Cabnet are employing every trick in the book.
The sense of unquestioning wonder is derailed when Louis concludes his tale. He bows and the audience claps — and it seems for an instant that the show is over, just long enough to begin to wonder what exactly the point was. Then, abruptly, the play continues as a meta-narrative: in short order, Louis falls from grace, and the somber, meditative questions are posed. Yet from that point on, the fictive dream his tale created is shattered and the tricks fall flat. The hollow core of the story exposed; it sends an irrepressible tremor throughout the play.
In a way, the last, desiccated part of “Shipwrecked!” is the most compelling. It opens up a world beyond the story’s allure and beyond theatrics, a world that is comprised entirely of the ego of one man. The sad, defeated Louis is at his most real — his earlier whimsy pales beside these brief, stirring moments at the end — but the tale is missing an essential resonance. The audience can see now that the emperor is indeed wearing no clothes.
Yet these last moments pass relatively quickly, with little demarcation. They have the ephemeral quality of Louis’s fad-like story themselves: appearing briefly on the scene, making a shallow splash and then fading into the murky depths of memory.