Henry Louis Grin (1847–1921) was a jack of many trades: a footman for the famous actress Fanny Kemble, a Swiss banker’s servant, an inventor, and a photographer who took pictures of ectoplasmic auras for psychics. He never did any job for long, however. And no one knew how long he actually spent in the Australian outback where, he boasted, he went native and was worshipped as a living god for almost 30 years.
Under the pseudonym Louis de Rougement, Grin wrote of his adventures for Wide World Magazine in ten installments. Vivid descriptions of shipwrecks, castaway solitude, and joy-rides on large sea turtles prompted comparisons with Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and the Odyssey. Grin/de Rougement grew empyrean-wealthy overnight.
Problem was the descriptions were a mite too vivid. The octopus that attacked his ship wasn’t your basic, surly 15-footer. It was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea–sized and twice as mean. Grin claimed he could steer a sea turtle by poking its left or right eye: left eye, right turn, and off we go. He didn’t just find enough pearls in the Coral Sea to fill two mason jars, he found a black pearl. These are so rare that some cultures consider the finder not just lucky but blessed. Grin/de Rougement also found gold but refused to say where: the Australian government promised to keep it secret and prevent prospectors from gouging the outback.
The equivalent of Grin today would be someone who has seen Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, the 26-mile-long UFO mother ship, the half-human/half-lion face on Mars, and the glass domes hovering above the moon. At some point, probably before or after the Loch Ness monster, imaginative overkill sets in, and today’s narrator, like Grin, will have gone an adventure too far.
Grin/de Rougement got caught. Toto pulled back the curtain, and for the rest of his life he became renowned as “the greatest liar on Earth.”
But come on! There’s got to be more to heaven and earth than in Horatio’s pedestrian philosophy. Our age hasn’t seen the last of the wonders, has it? To think it has combines xenophobic arrogance with blind stupidity. Which is why stories, told around an Ice Age campfire, or blasted from silver screens, are the mind’s dessert. They can capture and — better still — release the imagination, at least while the telling lasts.
Regarded in hindsight, Donald Margulies’s Shipwrecked is wafer thin. It’s a compilation of familiar episodes from Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe, and Homer: now we get the whirlpool scene (à la Scylla and Charybdis), now My Man Friday (an aboriginal woman, in this instance, whom de Rougement befriends, then marries), etc. But as the narrative unfolds, it’s almost impossible not to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.
The play, and the North Coast Rep’s fine production, put us back in a 19th-century music hall, where Grin narrates his tales on a bare platform-stage. Similar to the musical The Fantasticks, the three-person cast creates vivid effects with minimalist means: an asbestos safety drop becomes a sail in a storm; a baby blue blanket is a cloak, then roiling waves. Even the polished wooden planks on Marty Burnett’s set have multiple duties, among them the shell of a sea turtle coursing de Rougement over the bounding main.
Matthew Wiener directed and, you could say, choreographed the production, since the cast often moves in collective sways, be it aboard a seasick-inducing ship or underwater, buffeted by a strong current. The actors’ physicality extends to the soundscape. As in a radio show (and also NCRT’s recent production of The Dresser), performers create rain, thunder, and other effects with humble, “found” objects (credit to Bonnie Durben’s armada of imaginative props). It’s always a gutsy move to tell a story and, at the same time, expose the tricks of the telling.
Shipwrecked must be a cue-to-cue nightmare: split-second shifts, costume changes, almost strobe-quick lighting leaps. But you’d never know it. The production and the performances are fluid. Yetide Badaki, a newcomer to San Diego, and David McBean, a local favorite, excel. At first, Badaki plays de Rougement’s wife, and McBean, his trusty dog. In the last third of the 90-minute show, they up the ante, then go all in, playing at least ten different characters, each sharply defined and often (as in McBean’s portrayal of Queen Victoria), hilarious.
Ron Campbell, another local favorite, creates two characters at once: de Rougement, the elastic, irrepressible raconteur; and Louis Grin, on trial and defending his story, at first, and later, the right to narrate tales of wonder. Though garbed in Michelle Hunt Souza’s apt, late-19th-century outfits, at times Campbell’s gray goatee, high combed-back hair, and wide, mischievous eyes make him a dead ringer for Don Quixote, the maddest adventurer of them all.
Shipwrecked: An Entertainment, The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougement (As Told by Himself), by Donald Margulies
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by Matthew Wiener; cast, Ron Campbell, Yetide Badaki, David McBean; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Michelle Hunt Souza; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound, Steven Cahill
Playing through March 15; Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055.