TAMPA — The contemporary obsession with creating celebrities and then delighting in their downfall is apparently nothing new.
Witness the case of Louis de Rougemont, who became the toast of Victorian England but died shamed and penniless. He had disappeared when he was a teenager and returned decades later with tales of being shipwrecked and becoming the leader of a group of "savages." The tales made him rich and famous, but after they were called into doubt, he was disgraced and reviled.
Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends, uses de Rougemont's biography as the basis of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself).
It is, as the first subtitle promises, an entertainment — nothing more and nothing less. The current production at Gorilla Theatre, sparked by a phenomenally charismatic performance by Christopher Swan, is as much pure fun as you're likely to experience at the theater this season.
Swan speaks directly to the audience, spinning a first-person yarn of a sickly boy who longed for adventure. He leaves home and boards a ship bound for the Coral Sea. After a storm he ends up being marooned, alone except for his beloved dog.
The play includes countless characters besides de Rougemont, but only two other actors. Jonelle Meyer and Glenn Gover, sometimes changing characters several times in a few seconds, create some admirably amusing caricatures. They each also have a couple of larger roles — notably Meyer as de Rougemont's mother and Gover as his dog — that allow them to bring more substance to their characters, which they do with aplomb. (Gover gets help in his canine portrayal through a wonderfully expressive puppet created by Joel Gennari and Jerid Fox.)
Margulies and director Bridget Bean re-create the Victorian era by employing the broad pre-Vaudevillian acting styles and hilariously low-tech stage techniques of the day. It could easily descend into campiness if weren't for the engaging narrative by Margulies (via de Rougemont, who related his story in a celebrated magazine serial) and the performance by Swan, who's arguably the best actor in the area.
The play is intentionally lightweight and the story is cliched and preposterous: De Rougemont claimed that his ability to perform somersaults so impressed savages that they made him their leader, and that he defeated a marauding tribe by standing on stilts. But Swan has obvious empathy and affection for his character, and he's able to make us feel de Rougemont's sadnesses and exaltations.
Unfortunately, the fun's over before the play ends. After a period of celebrity, de Rougemont is reviled as it becomes apparent that he has, at least, exaggerated.
We've spent two hours enjoying and liking de Rougemont, and we never cared whether this tales were factual. In fact, modern audiences (except for children, who will probably love this show), unlike Victorian readers, will assume they're fictitious and won't feel defrauded. So watching his disgrace is an unpleasant twist that's out of character with the rest of the play. That it's the truth of de Rougemont's later life doesn't make it a comfortable ending to the play.