No country for old men

Shipwrecked! at the Lyric; Heroes in Lowell
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  December 1, 2009

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SHIPWRECKED! Allyn Burrows (left) is energetic yet delicate as tall-tale teller Louis de Rougemont.

Louis de Rougemont makes James Frey look like a documentarian. A sickly Victorian lad who arose from his cot, knocked around the Southern Hemisphere for a while, and returned to England with a hifalutin new moniker and captivating tales of seafaring perils and aboriginal idylls, he was the subject of a popular serialized autobiography. Now he takes center stage in Shipwrecked! An EntertainmentThe Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself). Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies's small-scale tall tale is in its local premiere courtesy of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston (through December 20), in a brisk, busker-like production helmed by Scott LaFeber.

Margulies has sailed these thematic seas before: his elegant Collected Stories considers questions of literary ethics. In its final half-hour, wherein Rougemont's claims are debunked and the entertainer must cast himself as creator or con man, Shipwrecked!, too, becomes a play for adults. For most of its length, however, Louis's tricks are for kids, many of whom, in the opening-afternoon audience, were delighted by the show's convergence of exotic events and low-budget make-believe.

An alternative to the ubiquitous holiday hokum on local stages, Shipwrecked! is a nondenominational family show that puts its faith in the power of storytelling. An energetic yet delicate Allyn Burrows, as Louis, is principal narrator of this Robinson Crusoe–esque fantasia. Aiding in illustration are two assistants who, in the manner of the Victorian music hall, are announced by their own names and then proceed to play everyone from drunken sailors and gibbering Aborigines to Louis's Herculean pooch. The kids particularly love Daniel Berger-Jones's dog, Bruno, with his lolling tongue, panting chest, quizzical expressions, and porkpie hat adorned with floppy ears. Angie Jepson, pert in pirate pants, makes a salty and pickled (if hardly grizzled) sea captain as well as playing an Aboriginal bride.

We know old soldiers never die; in Heroes (at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through December 13), they don't fade away, either, but continue to spark and sputter 40 years after the war that defined them. In French writer Gérald Sibleyras's 2003 comedy Le vent des peupliers, which has been adapted by Tom Stoppard into the Olivier Award–winning Heroes, three World War I vets live out their dotage in a Gallic old-soldiers' home as if suspended between Verdun and Beckett — except that these guys' capricious approach to the void recalls Giraudoux more than Godot. I'm not sure why Stoppard was moved to apply his linguistic flair to Sibleyras's trio of dottily walking wounded embarking in 1959 on one last campaign. But the result is not without a piquant charm, and Carl Forsman's well-acted production, which originated at New York's Keen Company, mixes sweetness with a floundering flamboyance.

Limping Henri (Kenneth Tigar), dashing if shell-shocked Gustave (Tony winner Ron Holgate), and Philippe (Jonathan Hogan), whose old head wound causes mid-sentence fainting spells, spend their days exasperating and buoying one another up while sharing stewardship of a 200-pound stone dog on a terrace of their nursing home. Each is haunted by the war of their youth; none seems to have come out of it whole enough to make much of a life. So when Gustave suggests a mission to Indochina and Henri counters with a picnic, a compromise campaign is born: a trip to a distant, poplar-punctuated view.

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