With their latest offering, Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventure of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), New Haven Theater Company have expanded their range yet again. While they are generally best with shows driven by dialogue and even—as with their entertaining take on Urinetown a few years ago—songs, one doesn’t usually associate them with special effects, and that’s what Shipwrecked! thrives on. The adventures of Rougemont (Christian Shaboo), directed by Peter Chenot, smack of the improbable world of coincidence of the 18th century novel, and, as a narrative, follow an arc of rise and fall very neatly. The story requires quite a number of small parts, lots of movement in different settings, and threats from storms, a giant octopus, Aborigines, and Australian prospectors, to say nothing of the frigid streets of London where immense condescension and adulation comes in waves. Driving all this is Rougemont, played by Shaboo with the earnest good humor of a narrator of fiction—indeed Rougemont speaks almost incessantly, interpreting for the viewer the elements of every scene as well as sharing his emotions and intentions as the story winds on. It’s an exhausting part—both verbally and physically (handstands, cartwheels and somersaults are featured)—and Shaboo keeps it all likeably interesting. We pull for Rougemont even as we suspect he’s pulling our leg.
The show is a theatrical production that never forgets it’s a theatrical production, and that suits NHTC where the means to bring off a piece are conditioned by a certain do-it-yourself ethic. In other words, Margulies’ play seems tailored for just such a company as NHTC. While a big budget production would no doubt be more effective in stimulating the suspension of disbelief that Rougemont’s story begs, it would also, I imagine, lose some of the feel of the “let’s pretend” aspect of the staging. Rougemont’s adventures feel more authentically presented when we see the puppet strings, as it were. And that’s because Rougemont never pretends that the staging is real, only that what he tells us actually happened.
Rougemont was a real person (Henri Louis Grin), his story cobbled together from the adventure stories he loved as a boy and facts about Australasia he found in libraries, but there is a certain mystery to it all as well. For while he was unable, in real life, to convince The Royal Geographic Society, his tale entertained and enthralled many. From those who want their epic adventures based in fact, there was an inevitable backlash. Indeed, Rougemont's fall from grace actually adds a certain believability to his story, so that its inclusion, while less “amazing” brings us back to reality.
Using a small proscenium as a backdrop—primarily as a space to project Drew Grey’s charming transparencies using the old magic lantern technique that would’ve been available to Rougemont—NHTC’s production gives us Rougemont’s story with the finesse of someone who can believe anything he wants his audience to believe. Doubtless seeing stagehands running about with banners to enact an octopus, he in fact sees an octopus. That, we might say, is the whole point of the story.
Shaboo is ably helped by NHTC members and some new recruits to round out the cast. Particularly welcome among the latter are the comic skills of Jesse Gabbard, as Captain Jensen, among other things, and welcome among the former is Mallory Pellegrino who plays an Aborigine maiden—who learns English surprisingly quickly—as charmingly as she played Emily in NHTC’s Our Town. Other highlights are Margaret Mann as Queen Victoria, quite intrigued by the fact that Rougemont rode a turtle, Erich Greene as Rougemont’s faithful hound—I can only imagine how tired his tongue must be after two shows in one day—Trevor Williams as an English prig, and Katelyn Marshall, as an Australian prospector. Everyone mentioned plays many other parts as well in the full meaning of ensemble.
Margulies’ play is an oddity. We could call it a celebration of theater and of make-believe, but it also seems to want Rougemont to be a hero, whether for adventures he didn’t have or for having the temerity of telling them as if he did—or perhaps for simply embodying the very principle of fiction: just because it didn’t happen that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Shipwrecked! is a fun family outing, and good time spent away from screens and computer-generated entertainment—for the sake of entertainment generated by shared imagination. Truly.
New Haven Theater Company presents Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself) By Donald Margulies Directed by Peter Chenot
Featuring: Christian Shaboo as Louis de Rougemont Cast: Jesse Gabbard, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, Katelyn Marshall, Margaret Mann, Mallory Pellegrino Trevor Williams; Projection Design: Drew Gray; Stage Manager: Allyson Kaechele; Light Board Op: Mary Tedford
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
Note: The 8pm show on Saturday 5/10 will be a Pay What You Can performance. Secure your admission with a $5 online reservation, and then pay what you can at the door.
For tickets and information:new haven theater company