Castaway Caught in Colonialist Fantasy in “Shipwrecked!”

Presented by Moonbox Productions
Written by Donald Margulies
Original music composed and performed by Dan Rodriguez and the repertory cast
Directed by Allison Olivia Choat

Nov 25 – Dec 29
Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre
539 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116
Moonbox Productions on Facebook

Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) Halfway through Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, when Louis de Rougemont (Kevin Cirone)–a real person who claimed to have been stranded in the Pacific in his 1899 serial-turned-book–lives on an unspecified island in a carefree existence with an unspecified, idealized indigenous people who variously refer to him as “chief” or “god,” I thought I’d be writing a very different review. But the lively depiction of a “man-eating octopus” and “flying wombats” early in the show should have tipped me off. This is a narrative that pokes holes in itself, a comedy-drama, a man using a survivor’s unlikely colonialist narrative to build his self-worth, and a story about the stories we tell ourselves to feel better.

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment–The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself) is the first half of Moonbox Productions’ ambitious pair of shows following the “Lost at Sea” theme. This story, specifically, is less about being stranded and more about a loss of self. In a sort-of one-man-show within a show, Cirone first appears stooped, an old man telling curious viewers about the amazing life he claims to have lived. I enjoyed the play’s charming framing: a nearly bare stage with sound-effect making equipment for typewriters, thunder, and wind. This is a production aware of the narrative it’s constructing. Actors are introduced to the audience by their surnames, costume changes are made in full view of the stage, everyone is in suspenders, and a lot of shadow puppets are used to comic effect.

So, yes. The tribe depicted is almost pure racist fantasy, specifically, de Rougemont’s fantasy. This non-specific Australasia people are innocent, easily charmed by de Rougemont’s acrobatics, and eventually willing to make him chief. To the shock of no one, he marries the first of the people he meets, Yamba (Luz Lopez). At first played as a colonialist’s dewy-eyed dream girl, it’s fitting Lopez is later cast as a librarian who describes de Rougemont’s interest in voraciously reading Australian books on indigenous people in the run-up to releasing his memoirs.

In the program, the production says, “we’ve created the world of Louis’ tribe from a tapestry of both creative and historical sources, and the historical sources we’ve consulted have dealt primarily with the nineteenth century European fascination with the East. In order to construct the tribe’s unique language, which Margulies intends to be separate from Louis’ native English, we ran English text through a randomized word scrambler and assigned rules of diction and phrasing of our own design.” Perhaps it’s fitting most of the actors in the show are white and, therefore, the tribe itself is largely made up of white people, because it’s very clearly the product of a white imagination. Still, I regret that more people of color weren’t cast in the show.

So while I found much of the play funny, it was still enormously awkward to watch. It was made more awkward by how much of myself I found in the main character, specifically the clash between his grand self-vision and the deflated, less impressive truth. I found the show less pure entertainment and more a meditation on dissonance and self image.

Among the most hilarious and moving of the performances in the show is Sarah Gazdowicz as Bruno, the dog with whom de Rougemont is stranded. Also, Charlotte Kinder is fantastic as de Rougemont’s overprotective mother and, later, a reporter who does research on his true background.

The main characteristic of Louis de Rougemont, as depicted in the play, is wonder. Marine life, the island pearls, cityscapes–he describes them with a boyish enthusiasm. Late in the show, the theory is floated he’s a conman because of his own delusions of grandeur rather than conscious public deception. Threads of truth remain in his narrative even if the tapestry woven is a colonizer’s fantasy. His flaw is not his lies, the show proposes, but that he wants to believe them so badly. In this, I find my grain of sympathy for Cirone’s difficult, complex character. This is a great achievement because, given the current political climate, I’m not very well disposed to sympathizing with desperate, sad, probably-racist con men, however conscious their deceptions.

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