Ensconced in their home at the back of the English Markets, the New Haven Theater Company now have the rights—and the right space—for their production of New Haven resident Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself). Margulies, a Pulitzer-winning playwright and a professor at Yale, first debuted the play in 2008, and there was a Long Wharf production that same year. Among the audience of the latter was Peter Chenot, who will be directing the NHTC production, which opens two weeks from today. For Chenot, the show accentuates the idea of the power of the imagination. With all the mechanics of the theater occurring onstage—including the sound effects of Foley art—the audience is not asked to suspend their disbelief in the usual fashion. Everything that Rougemont (Christian Shaboo) tells us, in his fantastic adventures involving, among other things, an attack by a giant octopus, is portrayed for the audience not as if it’s real but as if it’s an elaborate act of storytelling, happening before our very eyes.
Chenot was drawn to the play—which NHTC was initially slated to produce last spring at the Whitney Arts Center before the rights became unavailable—by the kinds of challenges and rewards it presents. It forces the troupe “to be more creative onstage” as well as “adding improv techniques” to their rehearsals—techniques that are part of the background of Chenot’s involvement with the group, as he’s a veteran of The Funny Stages, the improv comedy group that included Shaboo and Erich Greene, also a featured player in Shipwrecked! Also in the show is Margaret Mann, who directed Almost, Maine in the winter and was in the cast of NHTC’s production of Our Town, as was Mallory Pellegrino, also in Shipwrecked! and Almost, Maine. The NHTC regulars are joined by three debuts with the company: Jesse Gabbard, Katelyn Marshall, and Trevor Williams.
NHTC’s work on Our Town is an appropriate reference point, as Margulies himself references Thornton Wilder’s great play in his intro to Shipwrecked! The concept of theater freed of the effort to replicate realism in favor of imaginative flight unites both. As Chenot says, the stagehands are part of the play and seeing Drew Gray’s projections from an old-time magic lantern, or puppets made from found objects in two big steamer trunks onstage lets us know that the show is partly a matter of a willful redirection of reality. That element is significant for the story of Rougemont, a real person of Victorian England whose memoir chronicling his adventures was celebrated in his day, only to find the public turn against him when doubts about the veracity of his tale began to circulate.
Chenot likens Rougemont’s tale to the Odyssey where, famously, Odysseus tells his own “sea story” of strange lands and fantastic creatures. Uniting both is a love of storytelling for its own sake and the ability of a sailor to spin a yarn for the sake of his own skill. “For the players,” Chenot says, “it doesn’t matter if it’s true.” The troupe becomes “a family of believers in Rougemont” who are interested in the value of a good story and not in duping a gullible public.
NHTC is aiming the show for ages 8 and up, and indeed Shipwrecked! is the kind of show that might be said to be aimed at the child in us all, the one who is willing to be awed by reality’s potential to be more than we expect it to be. Is Rougemont a charlatan? Only if he doesn’t deliver the kind of entertainment we expect of the fabulous and incredible.
As Chenot comments, Shaboo, onstage the entire time as Rougemont, has to keep us enthralled and willing to follow his lead. A bit perhaps like the main character in NHTC’s most recent production, The Magician, Rougemont is trying to convince us that magic is what happens in our own minds, and this time all the sleight-of-hand will be right before our eyes.
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself) By Donald Margulies Directed by Peter Chenot
Showtimes: Thurs, May 1 and Thurs, May 8: 8 pm Fri, May 2 and Fri, May 9: 8 pm Sat, May 3 and Sat, May 10: 5 pm and 8 pm
New Haven Theater Company At The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven
$20, adults; $12, students, children
For tickets and information:new haven theater company