All fiction is a lie, but it’s the kind of falsehood of which we all happily approve every time we read a novel we like.
But when a writer decides to pass off fabulist fiction as autobiography, then we have a problem. Or some of us do. Fake memoirs may seem like a modern phenomenon, but they’ve been around for a long time.
Writer James Frey copped to inventions and exaggerations in his memoirs during a 2006 televised grilling by Oprah Winfrey in one of the more notorious examples of a writer playing fast and loose with the facts. But three years later a play by Donald Margulies opened in New York about a much older fictional autobiography. “Shipwrecked! The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself)” takes as its point of departure a fantastic account of South Seas adventures by a colorful 19th-century charlatan named Henri Louis Grin, who wrote under the name Louis de Rougemont. His account was serialized in a popular London magazine and became a sensation — until members of the National Geographic Society questioned his audacious claims.
Spinning Tree Theatre’s lively production of “Shipwrecked!” has much to admire, and director Michael Grayman makes the most of Margulies’ concept. The idea is to tell a fabulous story with minimal props and effects and only three actors. It’s an attempt to celebrate yarn-spinning and theatrical invention.
Charles Fugate plays de Rougemont, relating his adventures to the audience in first person, while multiple roles are played by Jennie Greenberry and Bob Linebarger. My main complaint about this production is that the performance style is simply too big and loud for the intimate space at the Paul Mesner Pupppet Studio. Only toward the end, when de Rougemont has been held up to public ridicule, does the show quiet down a bit and allow the viewer to reflect on the material. Until that point, it’s something of an auditory assault.
Fugate is a skilled actor who handles 90 minutes of text in what amounts to a series of monologues, and he certainly looks the part, thanks to costume designer Gary Campbell. (Campbell also designed the inventive props.) Greenberry plays a range of roles –— including a one-eyed ship captain and de Rougemont’s aboriginal wife — and invests each part, no matter how brief, with a luminous presence. Linebarger’s major role in the first half of the show is Bruno, de Rougemont’s loyal dog. Linebarger gives himself to the role with remarkable focus, and he and Greenberry are amusing in a series of smaller parts, including members of the aristocracy.
Ultimately, the play asks us to sympathize with de Rougemont. Thanks to Fugate, we do. He wasn’t a particularly successful con artist, but his tales briefly stirred the popular imagination with his vision of an imagined alternate reality. And when, in the final moments, we see him penniless on the streets of London, it’s hard not to feel for the guy.