“Elegant…Clever…Admirable…director Thomas Caruso, has concocted a kind of comical counterpoint to Louis’s ornate narration.”
With his long, lean physique and thin, angular face, Steven Hauck seems destined to play Don Quixote someday. In the meantime, he’s making do with Louis de Rougemont, the somewhat quixotic memoirist who thrilled Victorian England with his ripping yarns and ended up in a sideshow as “The Greatest Liar on Earth.”
That’s more or less where we find him in Donald Margulies’s “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself),” the final offering of the Penguin Rep season and the occasion for Mr. Hauck’s elegant impersonation. On a nearly bare stage strewn with a few lights, a couple of ladders and some hanging fabric, Louis welcomes us and begins his account of the ill-fated pearling expedition in the Coral Sea that, he claims, left him stranded among cannibals in the “land of the Aborigines” for 30 years.
Those 30 years pass in only 90 minutes at the Penguin, but not without some longueurs. Mr. Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his play “Dinner With Friends,” has written that Louis’s story — or stories — inspired him to write “a purely theatrical play about the power of imagination.” Believe him. In this very loose adaptation of the 1899 book “The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont, as Told by Himself,” you will not find any of Mr. Margulies’s nuanced, multilayered individuals or compelling dramatic arcs. And the Australian adventures that passed for amazing in 1899 seem somewhat tamer today. The main tool the playwright offers the actor playing Louis is plain, old-fashioned storytelling.
Fortunately, Mr. Hauck is up to the task. A charming and lively narrator, he uses his expressive features and liquid voice to bring us into Louis’s saga. His two cute-as-a-button assistants, Edena Hines and David Arkema, pop up as needed to dispense props, move the ladders around and portray incidental characters as our hero moves from his London childhood to his seafaring days and then to his odyssey through wildest, darkest Australia.
The pair’s most crucial contributions are Mr. Arkema’s Bruno, the clever and devoted mutt Louis inherits after his ship sinks, and Ms. Hines’s Yamba, another castaway who later becomes his wife. But they also have fun as the pearl divers and gold prospectors Louis encounters on his travels and the London gossips and debunkers who turn on him after he publishes his story.
These young actors also help with the shadow puppets and other simple devices that the director, Thomas Caruso, has concocted as a kind of comical counterpoint to Louis’s ornate narration. To his credit, he hasn’t repeated the tricks he used to enliven last season’s somewhat similar project, “Around the World in 80 Days”; but he hasn’t achieved quite that level of stage magic, either.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any. The lighting designer Cory Pattak and the sound designer Patrick Metzger create a shimmery underwater Eden when Louis joins the pearlers on a dive. Patricia E. Doherty provides the quirky, quick-change items of clothing that instantly transform Ms. Hines and Mr. Arkema into a tribesman or Louis’s mother or his dog. And Sarah Lambert’s rough beams and rigging provide a suitably nautical framework for the proceedings.
Alas, Mr. Margulies’s “entertainment” does not quite live up to its billing, despite the truly admirable efforts of Mr. Hauck and the rest. But then again, neither did Louis de Rougemont live up to his.