Most of us have heard of Baron Munchausen, the fictionalized version of an 18th-century German aristocrat known for grossly exaggerating his exploits in the Russo-Turkish War. Statues of the character poised in the midst of various improbable plights dot European cities; Terry Gilliam made a very funny movie about him in 1988; an asteroid was dedicated to him in 1994, commemorating his claimed trip to the Moon; a subtype of hypochondriac disorder is even named after him. But how many of us know about Louis de Rougemont, another prime candidate for the title of World’s Greatest Liar?
The man born Henri Louis Grin in Switzerland in 1847 was by all accounts a loser, a stick-at-naught, a would-be inventor and entrepreneur whose brainwaves always quickly fizzled along with his bouts of employment. But he managed to become a wealthy man for a while by publishing accounts of his imaginary travels in a British magazine, claiming to have been shipwrecked and marooned on an island off the coast of New Guinea, then sailed to Australia and lived for three decades among an aboriginal tribe who revered him as a god. His outrageous claims were swiftly questioned, and witnesses to his actual whereabouts during those years came forward to expose his lies. Poetic justice prevailed, and Grin died in poverty in 1921.
Playwright Donald Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner with Friends, turned the tale-within-a-tale of de Rougemont’s implausible memoirs into a delightful stagework called Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont, as Told by Himself. He adheres fairly strictly to the facts of Grin’s life, meteoric success and equally abrupt plunge into infamy as a framing device for the enactment of a most entertaining tall tale. And the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville has brought that play to life in a terrific production that pulls the curtain back from the trickeries of stagecraft, fully exploiting the wealth of implicit metaphor in a story that is fundamentally about storytelling.
On a simple set that stands in for the deck of a sailing ship, the port of London, a desert island and an Aborigine village, Michael Lewis as de Rougemont persuasively recounts his amazing made-up life story. He is ably assisted by the admirably versatile Bliss Griffin and Wayne Pyle in dozens of other roles. Pyle has to spend a lot of time on all fours as the adventurer’s dopey and faithful dog – the only other survivor of the “shipwreck” – and Griffin astoundingly navigates the multilevel set in high heels whilst stiffly miming a sea captain with a wooden leg.
But what makes this production an epic piece of stagecraft is the presence onstage of not one but two Foley tables, manned and womanned by Justin Pietropaolo and Jessica Barkl respectively. Being able to see exactly how the show’s abundant sound effects are produced (yes, hoofbeats come from coconut shells, just like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) just adds to the stage magic rather than defusing it. Simple props like a length of rope are persuasively employed to portray everything from a giant octopus to the Order of the British Empire medal. It’s hard to conjure a better way to hook kids on the joy of theater than to bring them to see Shipwrecked! where the real and the imagined freely interplay. (And they’ll probably spot right away that de Rougemont must be lying, because wombats aren’t bats.)
Shadowland’s Brendan Burke directs, and he and the entire cast do a totally splendid job. You can see Shipwrecked! Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Following the performance on Thursday, July 2, there will be a “Shadowland Illumination” talkback with the cast, crew and director. Tickets cost $34 to $39 for adults, with special pricing for this family-friendly show of $15 for children aged 15 and under. As always in Shadowland’s 184-seat, snazzily renovated 1920s Art Deco vaudeville venue, there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Shadowland’s summer 2015 season will continue with Ken Ludwig’s popular farce Moon over Buffalo from July 10 to August 2, starring Saturday Night Live alumna Denny Dillon. The musical tribute Woody Guthrie’s American Song, adapted by Peter Glazer, will be presented from August 7 to 30. Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years will run from September 4 to 27. For more information, tickets and deals on prorated season subscription pricing, call (845) 647-5511 or visit www.shadowlandtheatre.org.
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, June 19-July 5, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., $39/$15, Sundays, 2 p.m., $34/$15, Shadowland Theatre, 157 Canal Street, Ellenville; (845) 647-5511, www.shadowlandtheatre.org.