Friday, December 4, 2009

The occidental tourist

The rambling title of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself) lets you know it's a shaggy dog story - as told by a salty old dog, and featuring, yes, a literal shaggy dog (Daniel Berger-Jones, at left, with Angie Jepson and Allyn Burrows). So far, so self-conscious - although the title really should include a second parenthesis, "(as re-told by Yale professor of literature Donald Margulies)," just so you'd know precisely what stripe of literate postmodernism you were in for.

Because questions of truth, narrative, and how human nature twists one into the other have long figured in Margulies's writing - so we know better than to trust his "Louis de Rougemont" (a.k.a. Henri Louis Grin) or his tales of South Sea adventure. Although the real-life de Rougemont/Grin was certainly an adventurer in his own way - he spent his life knocking about as a global jack-of-all-trades (and something of a scoundrel, as he abandoned a wife in Australia) before re-inventing himself in the pages of "The Wide World Magazine" as a latter-day Robinson Crusoe who had battled giant octopi, swum with sea turtles, and shared romantic idylls with buxom island girls. Of course the turn-of-the-century (meaning the last century) public was not yet familiar with modes of meta-narrative, and so fell for this whale of a tale hook, line and sinker, even as criticism from experts on the fauna of the South Pacific made it sound pretty fishy. Eventually, of course, some last straw or other broke the back of de Rougemont's credibility, and the dissimulator fell into disgrace, swearing, however, to the very end that every word of his story was true.

Now in Shipwrecked!, the playwright includes both sides of this narrative false coin, and so clearly means to seduce us into round-eyed acceptance of a fantastic piece of fabulism, then force the scales from our eyes and confront us with the sad, small confidence man behind the larger-than-life figure. And the current Lyric Stage production almost succeeds at both tasks - only not quite. And that's largely because the author himself almost succeeds at both tasks - only not quite. The yarn that de Rougemont spins is smoothly rendered, but not richly colored, so its magic is rather mild. And its eventual deflation reveals - well, nothing much: de Rougemont remains a cipher, with the motives for both his deception and its enthusiastic reception remaining unexplored as a South Sea island. I suppose that's the whole idea, that behind our shared fabulisms there's nothing but the void - still, we get the impression that we're supposed to simply nod to ourselves at the end and think, "Ah, yes - postmodernism!" and go home happy.

So what happens when meta goes meta, and we realize the postmodernist behind the fabulist is something of a fraud, too? Oh, dear, I think I'm getting a little dizzy, so I'd better stop thinking about that. Certainly the Lyric hasn't given it much thought; they've basically styled Shipwrecked! as a children's show with an odd finale, as if Dorothy woke up at the end of The Wizard of Oz in a graduate seminar at Yale. And honestly - that's probably the way to go.

Still, director Scott LaFeber might have teased a little more mysterious resonance out of the material: we should sense more clearly, for instance, that the children's stories read by his mother are the source of de Rougemont's own tall tales. And at the same time, LaFeber seems not to have keyed into the odd notes of alienation that dot all the ongoing monologue: when actor Allyn Burrows narrates a line like "I laughed with bitter irony," for instance, the ensuing chuckle doesn't echo as curiously as it should.

Perhaps, of course, this is the fault of the actor rather than director, as the talented Burrows gives us an elegant, almost melancholy de Rougemont that prefigures too obviously the ruin to come: there's no bombastic spark of Barnum, no internal tingle to either the narrative or literal acrobatics of this born con man, so we don't feel the poignance of his eventual collapse as keenly as we should. Nor do we catch any glimpse at the finish of the dissatisfied, perhaps sickly self that must have been driving all his legerdermain (de Rougemont's not very far from Robert Louis Stevenson, after all). Burrows does convincingly capture the strange vibe of one particular meta-moment, when the play itself stops dead and the actors drop character, but this should operate as a contrast to the dramatic action, not an outgrowth of it, and at any rate it's hardly enough insight to hang an evening on.

Still, the production is gently entertaining, and kids who couldn't care less about Donald Margulies will probably get a kick out of its first two-thirds. And the old story-theatre tricks of showing us the quotidian means by which evocative effects are achieved (via shadowplay, cheap-but-clever props, etc.) still have some kick left in them. The chief reason to see the show, however, is the tireless work of Burrows's co-stars, Angie Jepson and Daniel Berger-Jones, who between them cover everything - and every accent - from Buckingham Palace to Pago Pago. Jepson is her usual forceful, detailed self, but it's Berger-Jones who really gets a chance to spread out in a series of sharply-rendered comic miniatures. Oddly, as de Rougemont's fibs catch up with him, and his story darkens, the show itself lightens up, as these two get to strut more and more of their stuff. And that's no lie.

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