Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), by Donald Margulies. Directed by Eric Peterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
John Hadden in rehearsal for Louis de Rougemont; photo: Erika Floriani
"I am displayed at Madame Tussaud's"
John Hadden with David Joseph as Bruno, the dog; photo: Erika Floriani
You always hope those wax figures at the Madame Tussaud museums will talk, will move and reach out to you, will tell you their remarkable stories. The good ones look alive; the bad ones seem to be resting, their faces contorted through exhaustion. Louis de Rougemont has been relocated to a back room, a distant corner. He was really Henri Louis Grin, a man who led many lives. He was even a footman employed by the actress Fanny Kemble who settled in The Berkshires, in Lenox, a curious coincidence as de Rougemont is being played on stage at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, VT by John Hadden who has been an actor with Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA which is just down the road from where Kemble once lived.
Does that make Haddon somehow connected with Kemble? Remotely, perhaps, which is just how de Rougemont lived in his day, remotely, disconnected from reality, definitely apart from the society he intrigued with his stories of a life lived in remarkable circumstances. "Truth is stranger than fiction," wrote World Wide Magazine in June 1899, "but De Rougemont is stranger than both."
He was nothing if not theatrical and so this new play exploits that aspect of his character and in so doing creates a mythic man who creates a personna that suits his particular needs. Like Kemble who could move an audience with a single gesture so this man could move a nation to admiration or stupor with his story-telling. Maybe he learned a thing or two in her service. Perhaps he was just a genuine genius with our new favorite thing at his fingertips: alternative facts. Either way his story, retold by "himself" to an audience come to hear him, makes for enthralling theater. . .a century later.
Haddon is terrific in this non-stop role, this recitation of honestly believed facts that may or may not have had any basis in reality. He presents this man and his truths with a clear-voiced sanity that he allows to be shattered late in the play. Even under siege by his critics, by scholars and medical men and scientists working in marine biology, Haddon's De Rougemont holds close to his truths with a diminished strength that never loses its possession of his life's experiences. Haddon brings an honesty to what may have been lies. He presents the man he plays as a delicate thing who holds unseen positions on the battlements of life. His cane is a cane, not a sword or battle-axe or shotgun. His stories are the same - stories he believe in, not tales, myths or fabrications.
Playing everyone, and everything, else in De Rougemont's life are David Joseph and Carla Woods, two remarkable actors who change and alter their apperances and their voices and their accents and their identities as needed. These two are the world. Londoners, foreigners, animals, they are everything and so they are De Rougemont's memories made life figures. I do believe that there is no challenge David Joseph cannot meet. He sings, he plays a faithful dog, he does cartwheels. He is a giant sea turtle who CAN bear to be touched. In fact he is two of them in this play. A best actor nominee last year at the Berkshire Theatre Awards for his role as Charlie Chaplin at this same theater, this year he has taken on the duties of fifty men in small roles, sometimes three or more in the same scene. For Hadden (last year's best supporting actor winner) Joseph is the best friend a lead actor could have, a supporting cast of a hundred who can never take a break or miss a line.
Carla Woods is a wonder, and she sings a Sigmund Romberg song, written a thirteen years after De Rougemont died, throughout the show. Like Joseph her talents are varied and amazing (no cartwheels though) but she takes on remarkable characters as though she was putting on a glove; she is quick and her transitions are amazing. She plays Haddon's mother, wife, mistress, detractor and supporter. She gives him responses that make him bristle and glower, glare and break into beaming smiles. Her changes often come about so quickly that she is truly suddenly a different person. Watching her avoid confusion can make you dizzy and you love it.
Director Eric Peterson has forged a winning combination in his actors and designers. He has pushed an awkward story, beautifully written, into a mold that must be broken from the effort of removing the model from inside its rubber holder. De Rougemont has a flexible shell but a hardened core that could easily burst into a thousand smaller bits if mishandled. Peterson has a delicate grasp on all of this and keeps it fascinating which cannot be easy for Haddon's character almost never leaves center stage. That alone is worth a directorial kudo. His actor may hold center, but the story is in the surround.
The show is nicely set with Ursula McCarty's excellent costumes, David Groupés sensitive lighting, Cory Wheat's sound design and a felixible, straighforward set designed by Wm. John Aupperlee.
When fact becomes faction and fiction becomes theory the worlds of confusion and impression combine to become magical realism. "Shipwrecked!. . ." is a fine example of how this works and how an audience can be given more than it can handle and still come out feeling as though they are all right. Entertainment it calls itself and entertainment it certainly is. . .much as De Rougemont must have been in his own time. And now, thanks to Margulies, Peterson and Haddon we can say we didn't miss his experience.
Carla Woods and John Hadden; photo: Erika Floriani
Carla Woods as Mother de Rougemont; photo: Erika Floriani
Shipwrecked!. . .plays at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street, Bennington, VT through June 4. For information and tickets call 802-447-0564 or go on line at oldcastletheatre.org.