As Louis de Rougemont, a real-life British adventurer of the Victorian era, Rodney Witherspoon II is an affable storyteller. He struts and frets for 90 minutes on the Garden Stage outside the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, telling the story of Louis’s life. And what an epic story it is — chockablock with seafaring disasters and feats of derring-do, terrifying creatures such as a giant man-eating octopus and flying wombats, encounters both hostile and romantic with exotic South Seas natives, and rituals of public adulation and disgrace.
Assisting Witherspoon in the telling are two deft and versatile actors (Jackie Davis and Jackson Goldberg) who play a score of supporting roles of different genders, races, and species, each with a different sound and demeanor. Filling out the spectacle is the “musical accompaniment” of Justin Torrellas, who supplies old-fashioned radio-hour-style sound effects as well as melodies. I had no idea an accordion could make such a variety of noises.
It’s all part of a play with the unwieldy title Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself), by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donald Margulies, which is as much an examination of the relationship between storytelling and truth (à la Life of Pi) as it is an episodic, serialized meta-Dickensian personal saga, ripped from the pages of pulpy Victorian magazines.
WHAT veteran Daisy Walker directs this spectacle with a light vaudevillian touch, keeping the level of imagination high and the narrative at a pleasant clip, punctuating the farcical goings-on with understated winks and nudges. The lovely scenic and lighting design is by WHAT’s producing artistic director, Christopher Ostrom; the costumes (often cottony beige or white) are by Seth Bodie; and the crisp sound design was created by Sam Sewell. They provide the storied Wellfleet company with a well-suited return to live theater after a long and painful absence, out in the open air as the evening sky slowly darkens. It may be nice to share the arena with the wind and trees and insects, but I, for one, can hardly wait for a full return to indoor theatergoing, Covid fears and Actors’ Equity rules notwithstanding.
Shipwrecked! opened off-Broadway in 2009 and has been produced widely on regional stages. It’s easy to see why. The play is family-friendly, though its ironies and twists will be lost on younger children. Mostly, though, it’s a celebration of theatrical performance and the way a story that’s persuasively told becomes believable — even if it’s not.
According to the history books, Rougemont was born Henri Louis Grin in Paris in 1847, to Swiss parents. He started life as a sheltered child, a “fragile boy with a delicate constitution,” as his mother tells him in the play. Then, at 16, in Louis’s telling, he leaves home and sets out on an adventure: to search for pearls in the Coral Sea, off the coast of New Guinea. He is shipwrecked but survives — along with his dog — and comes ashore on an isolated island. He eventually makes it to the Australian Outback, starts a family with an Aboriginal princess, and, 30 years later, deserts them and sails to London, serializing his memoirs in The Wide World Magazine. His story is hugely popular with the Victorian public, and Rougemont is celebrated as a glorious adventurer. That’s when he faces a different kind of disaster. He is doubted by experts, confronted with impossible details, and his self-aggrandized world quickly collapses. Though aspects of his story may very well be true, the entire yarn is no longer believed, and Rougemont’s ability to entertain evaporates.
As Rougemont, Witherspoon plays it straight. Unlike the gallery of outlandish characters that surrounds him, he engages us as a storyteller and gains our sympathy. It’s a necessary choice to keep such a frothy story grounded. But one shouldn’t overlook how impressive Witherspoon’s performance is, even if his two sidekicks get most of the showy, funny bits.
WHAT’s Shipwrecked! is remarkably even-handed. From the outset, some in the audience may believe Rougemont, and others will not. But, in the end, the truth resides in the beholders of this spectacle, just as it always should.
The event: Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself), a play by Donald Margulies
The time: Wednesday through Sunday, 7 p.m., through July 25
The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s outdoor Garden Stage, 2357 Route 6; theater parking is closed: use the highway lot by Dunkin’
The cost: $35 in advance; $40 day of; $15 students; at what.org