An emotional journey, real or imaginary
At the beginning of “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment - The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself),’’ the Victorian gentleman of that cumbersome title makes a promise to those of us in the audience.
“I am about to tell you a story,’’ Louis says. “A fantastic and amazing story! A story all the more remarkable because every word of it is true. That’s right. Every word. How do I know? Because I lived it, dear ones.’’
Familiar words, no? James Frey told us roughly the same thing. So did the parents of Balloon Boy. We’re conditioned nowadays to cock an eyebrow at stories that seem too good (or too bad) to be true, because we live in an age of self-promotion and embellishment and outright fabrication, of faked memoirs and reality TV wannabes who pose as invited guests to crash White House parties, then gleefully post photos of their stunt on Facebook.
But even a skeptical 21st-century audience may be inclined to go along for the ride with Louis de Rougemont, the eager-to-entertain protagonist of Donald Margulies’s “Shipwrecked!,’’ now receiving its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage under the direction of Scott LaFeber. When Louis’s story starts to fall apart, it seems less like a richly deserved comeuppance than a personal tragedy - and that, rather than in the enactment of his adventures, is when “Shipwrecked!’’ is at its most compelling.
Louis (the engaging and versatile Allyn Burrows) is both narrator and hero of the seafaring episodes he describes. By his own account, he was a sickly child whose devoted mother read him adventure stories, including “Robinson Crusoe,’’ until the dramatic day in 1869 when Louis, then 16, rose from his sickbed and left his London home, intent on adventure.
And for nearly 30 years, he breathlessly tells us, that is exactly what he found. Sailing on a pearl-diving expedition to the Coral Sea near Australia, the young Louis watches in horror as an octopus makes a snack out of one of his shipmates. Then Mother Nature begins to do her worst, hurling first a storm, then a whirlpool at the vessel. The resulting shipwreck leaves Louis floating on a piece of wreckage, the only survivor apart from his faithful dog Bruno (Daniel Berger-Jones, in one of several roles performed with exceptional vividness).
Youth and pooch wash up on a deserted island. Years pass. One day they encounter a young Aborigine woman named Yamba (Angie Jepson, who also plays Louis’s mother). Louis performs a few acrobatics that win him acceptance, and he goes to live among the Aborigine tribe. (In an apparent bid to reflect Victorian stereotypes about “savages,’’ the Aborigines do a lot of spear-waving and gibbering, which this viewer could have done without). He and Yamba fall in love, marry, and have two daughters. But eventually, with his daughters grown, a desperately homesick Louis decides to return to London (Yamba stays behind).
When he does so, he is astonished to find that it is 1898, and the placid London of his youth is now thoroughly industrialized. But when Louis’s stories of his adventures are published in Wide World magazine, he becomes a folk hero, hailed on street corners and besieged for his autograph. Soon, though, skeptics begin to poke holes in his story. Louis is dismissed as simply delusional, his tales as nothing but a blend of the adventure stories his mother read to him as a child. The newspapers and the public turn on him.
Margulies has crafted the stage equivalent of a two-headed sea creature: part old-fashioned entertainment, part parable about the self-mythologizing nature of storytelling and the rapidity with which celebrity can rise, then fall. The deliberately hokey derring-do of the first two-thirds of the play is likely to appeal primarily to young audiences, while adults will probably find the final third, when “Shipwrecked!’’ moves into the realm of character study, more absorbing.
I’d have liked Margulies to give us a fuller picture of the man behind the colorful tales, especially since both Louis’s ambition and his predicament seem so utterly contemporary. “There are and there shall always be man-made gods the hoi polloi eagerly creates and then just as eagerly destroys,’’ Louis says, in words that await only the next reality TV or fake-memoir scandal for fresh confirmation. “I am merely one in a long illustrious line.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.