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A funny fabricated saga

June 27, 2008|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Victorian hoaxer Louis de Rougemont captivated England with his supposed true adventures as a castaway marooned for decades in the South Pacific.

A lethal giant octopus, leisurely rides on sea turtles, buried treasure and a stint as an aborigine tribe's war chief figured into the mix. The chronicle, avidly consumed by his public in magazine serial form, led to fame and fortune for De Rougemont -- and a hard and lasting fall from grace at the hands of skeptics.

If only this Swiss-born Baron Munchausen hadn't mentioned the flying wombats.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies ("Dinner With Friends") gives a sympathetic nod to the audacious autobiographer's creative overreach in "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)," a deft literate narrative folded into a vaudevillian romp with radio theater overtones.

Commissioned by South Coast Repertory, where it premiered last year, the play is continuing its New York-aimed evolution at the Geffen Playhouse, where it opened on Wednesday.

Returning from the SCR production are its three-member cast and director Bart DeLorenzo. In the title role, Gregory Itzin plays the colorful fabulist with deliberate emotive excess, signaling that, unlike the gulled Victorian audience, we're to be in on the deception from the beginning.

Itzin is in his element, both rollicking tale-spinner and sardonic observer: "Chapter One. The seeds of adventure are sown: I am born." And DeLorenzo's light touch allows his actor full rein. At times, a bit too much. Itzin's humorous scene-chewing is so broad that the ghost of a wink persists in Margulies' compassionate speculations on the real-life deficiencies and pain that may have been at the root of Louis' need for self-aggrandizement.

Standout supporting actors Melody Butiu and Michael Daniel Cassady provide a barrage of sound effects and in gender-bending guises play every other role in Louis' fanciful saga: a rum-swilling sea captain, aborigine natives, Queen Victoria, tea-drinking dowagers and a most loyal and slobbery dog among them.

The production design, crafted by Keith Mitchell (sets), Rand Ryan (lights) and Christine Marie (shadow projections) is rich with visual surprises and old-time ambience, enhancing the play's dual layers of fantasy and visible behind-the-scenes machinations.

Indeed, the humor and Robinson Crusoe patina is a departure from Margulies' decidedly contemporary, relationship-oriented work.

Today, the reinvention of self has become a commodified, whiplash event. A mea culpa on Oprah's couch, a dysfunction-filled memoir or a stint in rehab can lead to celebrity, phase two. Shame lasted longer in Louis' day and he never scored a second chance. Margulies, however, adds another twist in his playful Diogenesean abstraction, giving the fabricator a redemptive, visually delightful -- if not altogether convincing -- final bow.


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