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Actor Bruce Nelson spins a dizzying tale about Louis De Rougemont's excellent adventure

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told by Himself)

By Donald Margulies

Through Oct. 24 at Everyman Theatre

The title character

of Everyman Theatre’s

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Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told by Himself)

was a real person, a 19th-century Frenchman who drew big crowds in London with his accounts of being marooned on a desert island in the Coral Sea near New Guinea. But don’t look him up before you see the play, for the truth about his life is what gives the production its surprise twist and its satisfying weight. In the end,

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Shipwrecked!

is not so much an adventure story as a cautionary tale about the thirst for adventure.

American playwright Donald Margulies (whose

Sight Unseen

was at Everyman in 2007 and whose

The Loman Family Picnic

was at Center Stage in 1994) is a champion of old-fashioned storytelling and suspense, and to a large extent he bases

Shipwrecked!

on De Rougemont’s serialized

Amazing Adventures

, published by London’s Wide World Magazine in 1898. Moreover, Margulies refuses to rely on modern microchip technology to conjure up the giant octopus, tsunami, and painted aborigines of the tale; instead, the playwright and Everyman director Derek Goldman rely on shadow puppets, hand-operated sound effects, and a dozen painted masks.

Margulies goes so far as to present this exotic adventure as if it were Thornton Wilder’s

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. As the lights go down, the thrust stage is bare but for a few tan sheets tossed over pieces of furniture. Out from one sheet jumps Bruce Nelson in a black bowler hat and a garish, orange-ish plaid blazer. He introduces himself as Louis De Rougemont and advises patrons to unwrap their candies now and observe the exits. He points out his two fellow actors: Tuyet Thi Pham, perched on the crowded shelves to stage left, and Clinton Brandhagen, on the shelves to the right. De Rougemont removes the sheet from a child’s bed, crawls in, and becomes his 8-year-old self in 1860 London, listening to adventure stories read by his devoted mother. He gives into them as readily as we soon will.

Fueled by those sagas, he leaves home at 16 and joins the crew of a sailing ship bound for the Coral Sea to harvest pearls. It is there that a tsunami shatters the boat and sets De Rougemont and his faithful hound Bruno adrift on a plank till they wash up on a desert island. They live alone for two and a half years, riding giant sea turtles and watching flying wombats, until another storm washes up three Australian aborigines: a young woman, her baby brother, and their aged father. De Rougemont and the woman, Yamba, quickly learn each other’s languages and fall in love. They construct a raft and sail to the Australian mainland, where De Rougemont becomes the tribe’s warrior king. More than 20 years later, homesick, he strikes out on his own for England.

To this point,

Shipwrecked!

is not so different from Center Stage’s 2009 production of

Around the World in 80 Days

, a mildly amusing display of how to evoke exotic locations and wild adventures with few props and fewer actors. If

Shipwrecked!

is more amusing than its predecessor, it’s only because the new show has the better cast. Pham appears to shrink and stretch her slender body to fit roles ranging from De Rougemont’s bent, worrywart mother to the swaggering, alcoholic captain of the pearling ship. Brandhagen spends much of the show on hands and knees as the panting, slobbering Bruno, but he occasionally stands upright to become just as convincing as an ancient aboriginal chief or a snooty London scientist.

Best of all is Nelson, whose sly smile and twinkly eyes let you know that he enjoys retelling his adventures even more than he enjoyed experiencing them the first time. When Nelson awkwardly demonstrates De Rougemont’s high jumps and somersaults, he finishes them off with such a triumphant flourish that you’ve already forgotten the awkwardness.

But you shouldn’t, for that gap between presentation and reality is what the show is ultimately about. When De Rougemont returns to London, he tells his story with the same seductive self-confidence with which he has performed his gymnast tricks. That’s enough to convince many people, for most of us want to believe in things at the edges of our imagination. How else can one explain military fever or religious fervor? But there are always a few skeptics, and when the doubters in 1898 London attack De Rougemont, they are also attacking our fantasies, which have fed so eagerly on these Coral Sea stories.

Suddenly we are watching a very different show than the one we thought we were watching;

Shipwrecked!

has taken on a darkness at which

Around the World in 80 Days

never hinted. We have invested so heavily in the protagonist that when he has his crisis, it is our crisis too, and soon we have to question our pleasure not only in De Rougemont’s tales but in every story we have ever enjoyed.

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