Shipwrecked! A Discussion/Review Round-up/Etc.
Hello, Eugene's theater-going crowd! I watched the Lord Leebrick Theatre's production of Shipwrecked! by playwright (as my compatriot in reviewing puts it, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Donald Margulies last Friday night at the opening.
I laughed some, and I loved parts of the first "act" (I'm not sure the play should have been divided at all, it's so short, but on the other hand, a 90-minute no-intermission play can be hard on the audience, not to mention the insanely hardworking cast of this particular play). I thought the set, the shadow puppets, the character changes and other things were almost all fantastic.
But then things hit a snag. The main character rescues a boat with three Aborigines in it, and eventually he goes with them back home to their village/town/tribe, where he becomes their ruler after impressing them with his gymnastic ability and his ability to defeat a neighboring tribe by showing off his stilt-walking prowess.
I'll paste in my review, which is also here, below.
In short, I was disturbed by the script and by some design choices, and I talked briefly with Leebrick Artistic Director Craig Willis and play director Fred Gorelick about the issues I had, so I think they are both aware of my concerns.
That said, I'd like to open up the discussion to them and to others (the actors, other audience members, etc.), so the point of this post is for people familiar with the play (here or elsewhere) to talk in the comments about the content.
If you haven't seen the play or read the script, I'd ask you to wait until you have, but please do feel free to comment once you do know more about the issues.
Shipwrecked! promotes a certain kind of adventure
by Suzi Steffen
When an actor takes to the stage and begins to tell a story, she projects images for the audience. Those images, no matter how fantasy-based, live in our world, a world that has a history. Thatâ€™s where the storytellers have a responsibility. In the Lord Leebrickâ€™s production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), the actors do their jobs, but the storyteller, playwright Donald Margulies, does not.
Shipwrecked! is a tale of an historical tale: In 1898, Henry Louis Grin wrote a first-person account of his adventures, using the pen name Louis de Rougemont. De Rougemont claimed to have gone to the South Seas on a pearl diving expedition, gotten shipwrecked on a deserted island and then lived with Aborigines in Australia for 30 years.
The Leebrickâ€™s actors hit every note of theatricality with exuberance and skill. ZoÃ« Grobart and Steven Coatsworthâ€™s kinetic energy brings the story to life as they portray instantaneous and complete character transformations with a roll of the body, an accent switch or a flip of the octopus arm. Theyâ€™re simply fantastic.
Stephen Speidel as Louis de Rougement remains at center stage for the entire show â€” and to improve the post-intermission bits, he needs to get his head out of the book he carries around. But his vitality and acting ability are clear.
Director Fred Gorelick deserves praise for his excellent directing, and the stagecraft of puppeteer Martha Gizara, a recent South Eugene graduate, gives the production the slightly surreal feel. The screen works like an old magic lantern, with subtly ironic effects (watch the octopus).
The New York Times recommended Shipwrecked! as a childrenâ€™s play, and I can imagine that many children would enjoy the tale that de Rougemont tells. A loving mother? Check. Bedtime stories? Check. Running away from home? Check. Buried treasure? Check. Storm and shipwreck? Check.
Meeting Aborigines whom the white male storyteller calls primitive/savage/cannibal, rescues, convinces to choose him as their leader, sleeps with and abandons when he wants to see England again?
Uh, check. Which leads me to the script. De Rougemont claimed that the Aborigines worshipped him as a god (carefully elided in the play). He also claimed to have ridden sea turtles, which was the story that got his writing debunked.
So in the early years of this century, more than 100 years after de Rougement's tale (and with the shadow of James Frey and other memoir fabricators casting a long, unspoken shadow), Margulies wrote this play riffing on de Rougemontâ€™s story. The piece is clearly about the magic of theater (using metallic sheets to create thunder! Introducing the actors by their real names at the beginning of the show! A man acting, and doing a damn great job of it, the part of a dog!) and the importance of storytelling to self-identity. The bit on theater succeeds; the bit about Investigating Storytelling involves a lot of the basic telling-rather-than-showing problem (Shakespeare is your one true lodestar? OK, yes, but show us.).
Part of the script concerns media comsumersâ€™ need for heroes and villains; part of it concerns the energy and courage it takes to construct a story/script for public consumption. Part of it reflects classic Western world adventure-on-deserted-island stories, ranging from The Tempest to Robinson Crusoe to Treasure Island to The Swiss Family Robinson. Using de Rougemontâ€™s love for these kinds of stories as evidence, Margulies implies that the tales read to us and the tales we read as children affect the adventures we desire and the tales we tell about ourselves as adults.
That makes the tale Margulies tells doubly important, and I am surprised that the playwright didnâ€™t do more to deconstruct Grin/de Rougemontâ€™s colonialist attitudes. The shockingly stereotypical â€œAborigineâ€ puppets, with their mix of 19th century stereotypes, might serve the purpose of causing the audience to doubt de Rougemont, but we need more. We need to understand how those stereotypes fit into prejudices and the imperial control of England over subjected peoples â€” and how, like other things about de Rougemontâ€™s tale, they have also been debunked.
Margulies refuses to take that responsibility. De Rougemont remains a sympathetic figure to the end of the play, and that means he does more than break the hearts of 19th-century kids who believed in his story; he, and of necessity Margulies, breaks the hearts of adults whoâ€™d prefer to enjoy this 21st-century play. The so-called golden age of adventure to which Margulies hearkens with this tale were murderously real for the Aborigines who lived under British colonial rule. So, despite this playâ€™s light tone and the actorsâ€™ talented portrayals, the picture from the magic lantern show just isnâ€™t that funny.
I'd read the NYT's review in search of some acknowledgment of problems with the script. Here is reviewer Charles Isherwood's lead (from Feb. 10, 2008):
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies scampers to the defense of good old-fashioned yarn spinning with â€œShipwrecked!â€ The breathless story of a Victorian gentleman whose colorful past as a seafaring wanderer springs to life like a theatrical pop-up book, this kid-friendly comedy opened on Sunday night at the 59E59 Theaters in a Primary Stages production.
Paul Hodgins of the Orange County Register wrote the review of the premiere at South Coast Repertory in 2007. I think he implies the problems with the script without outright stating them, or perhaps he trusts the audience to understand the implied criticism of de Rougemont (and Victorian England). Here's his concluding graf:
In the end, Louis wins our sympathy despite his egregious flaws, and that's what makes his kind so dangerous. He dismisses his fabrications as "daubing a few spots of color on the drab canvas of life." And Louis' final justification for indulging in "truthiness" rings with undeniable allure: "What does a man leave behind but his name and the story he told?" An attractive sentiment, until you consider where certain stories have led us recently.
I agree that this is what the playwright was trying to convey. Louis in the play is super charming (Stephen Speidel definitely both charms and seems trustworthy in the Leebrick's production). But I don't think it's right not to be more explicit in pointing out the damage of a society that could believe such things about Aborigines (ahem, not that we're entirely clear of that sort of belief system), especially in a play that would seem to encourage those attitudes in young minds.
Locally, the Register-Guard's Dorothy Velasco wrote,
The play glances at vast changes in the name of progress, but there is little interpretation of the Victorian-era viewpoint as seen from the 21st century. The natives are caricatures typical of that era, and any hint of irony is almost too subtle to catch. The author has stayed close to the original material without making it more meaningful for todayâ€™s audience.
At The Feminist Spectator, Princeton English/Theatre prof Jill Dolan writes about the NY production. She's given me permission to excerpt as much of the review as I'd like, so here are the final three paragraphs â€” but I'd encourage you to go to the site and read the entire review.
In the meantime, Shipwrecked! offers the simple pleasures of a story well-told and a supremely well acted and smoothly directed (by the talented, always effective Lisa Peterson), quickly paced theatrical divertissement. Its only troubling aspect is Marguliesâ€™s treatment of the Aboriginal family as â€œsavagesâ€ who need to be civilized, and de Rougemontâ€™s description of his meeting with their tribe as a confrontation with â€œcannibals.â€
That his wife is played by [Donetta Lavinia] Grays, a terrifically accomplished African American actress, makes those parts of the story wincingly, if unintentionally, racist. When de Rougemont becomes a member of the tribeâ€™s royalty, his colonialist adventures reek of the white manâ€™s burden; when his desire to return home overwhelms his happiness with his native wife, he curses the time heâ€™s â€œwastedâ€ in the outback, suggesting that his love for her and his daughters was less vital and important than his devotion to his trusty, finally dead dog, whom we see him bury with tenderness and grief.
Finally, then, even though the story is pleasant and its theatricality a thrilling reminder that all we need to create new worlds is a few boards and supple, mobile bodies and willing souls, these moments of unthought colonialism are sad reminders that heroic adventure stories remain the province of straight white men who conquer the â€œsavageâ€ other before they return triumphantly home to the bosom of â€œcivilization.â€ De Rougemontâ€™s disgrace doesnâ€™t redeem the fact that heâ€™s told his story with less humanity than he means to convey. Shipwrecked! makes him a hero with whom itâ€™s difficult to identify or ultimately to applaud.
I think it's interesting that Dolan says it's unintentionally racist. I can't imagine Margulies intentionally making the script as racist as was de Rougemont and as was the time period. But I don't think the female actor has to be African American for the audience to notice the racism (and, indeed, to wince). I sat in the audience with a weird double feeling: I'm white, obviously, and indeed I'm sure I have my moments of unthought white privilege. But the shadow puppets (you'd need to see a reproduction) made me incredibly uncomfortable, as did the feathered headdresses on the supposed Aboriginal leader. Gorelick pointed out to me that this is how de Rougemont described the Aborigines, as wearing cockatoo-feather headdresses, which did explain that design decision a bit.
Still, sure, a 19th-century charlatan could smash together stereotypes of people of color without too much worry about what his Victorian English audience would think, but I don't think we should perpetuate that. I really, very strongly, don't want that to go on. Because the effects of white European and American colonialism, slave-trading and -owning, the prejudice toward and oppression of Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the attempted genocide of Native Americans/First Nations peoples, etc., lingers today in every statistic about economic prosperity, education, health, etc. I tried to imagine taking a white kid to the play and having long deconstructive discussions later, which might work. Then I tried to imagine taking a kid of color to the play. My mind boggled.
But, as they say in the blog world, YMMV: Your mileage may vary. And I'd love to hear more from others!