Theater review: ‘Shipwrecked’ has tale to tell

Iris Fanger

You might consider the 19th-century explorer-rogue Louis de Rougemont to be a grown-up version of Max, the small boy who dreams himself into the marvelous adventures of “Where the Wild Things Are,” prompted by the pen of Maurice Sendak. Onstage at the Lyric, De Rougemont weaves wondrous tales – starring himself – about his years on the Coral Sea where he was set adrift in a whirlpool that demolished his ship and marooned him on a desert island. After he rescued a trio of aborigines, he became their chief.

With the help of playwright Donald Margulies, De Rougemont takes command of a bare stage to enthrall the audience with his life story in “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (as Told by Himself).”

The distinguished actor and Elliot Norton Award winner Allyn Burrows walks onstage as De Rougemont when the lights come up and hardly takes an offstage breath for two hours, except for the intermission. Burrows speaks in the clipped upper-class vocal patterns of a learned Englishman, a guise he has taken on like a cloak of respectability, to tell his tale of transformation from a sickly boy to an adventurer of excellence who is no less astonished by the events that befall him than we are. He also uses every part of his body to act out the events, enlivened by his acrobatics, including a somersault that he executes with pride. There’s no doubt he is reliving his life as he relates his adventures – or is there? – but more about that later.

Burrows has two confederates onstage who come to life as the multiple characters of his fantastic biography. Among those portrayed by Daniel Berger-Jones are a gibbering aborigine, a proper Victorian lady, and Bruno, his beloved dog, complete with wagging tail, slobbering tongue and a faithfulness to his master that shines through his rolling eyes. That’s not to mention a wicked portrayal of Queen Victoria. Angie Jepson is equally versatile as De Rougemont’s helicopter-type mom, a swaggering ship captain, and Yamba, the loyal native woman he marries.

This alternative to the more familiar Christmas entertainments turns bleak for the last quarter of the play, when De Rougemont, actually a real person who lived in England and Australia during the 19th century, is unmasked as a charlatan. He had sold his story to an English magazine that published it to great fanfare and became a national hero.

His 15 minutes of fame ended badly when his fans punished him for taking them in, leading De Rougemont to ponder the fickleness of fate and the dubious rewards of his use of the imagination.

The story ends with a moral, but I’m not quite sure if Margolies wants us to admire the man for his chutzpah or revile him for his lies – a little of both in this charming theatrical experience.

SHIPWRECKED By Donald Margulies; directed by Scott LaFeber. Performed by the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, through Dec. 20. $25-$54. 617-585-5678,

The Patriot Ledger