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Photograph by r.r. jones
hounded to the ends of the earth: Louis de Rougement (played by Dierk Torsek, left) and his faithful companion Bruno (Mike Ryan) travel the world in 'Shipwrecked!'

Stranger Than Fiction

'Shipwrecked!' maroons audience on island of laughs in SSC production.

By Curtis Cartier

THEY SAY truth is often stranger than fiction. But in a tale told by master raconteur Louis de Rougemont, both fact and fantasy have their place. Explorer, seaman, survivalist and con artist, de Rougemont, as played by seasoned television and stage actor Dierk Torsek, spins his greatest yarn ever in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougement (As Told by Himself).

The play was a hit with the sold-out crowd at its July 24 opening at UCSC's indoor Theatre Arts Mainstage. The only non-Shakespeare play to be part of this year's SSC festivities, the production, which was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies, was for all intents a beautifully animated extended monologue by Torsek.

The story follows de Rougemont, who serves as both the main character and the narrator, on a fantastic, if wildly embellished, adventure that takes him from the bustling streets of London to a pearling ship off the coast of Australia to a deserted island in New Guinea to an aboriginal camp in the Outback and back again to England. Aided by a mere four additional actors, each playing no fewer than five roles apiece, the play triumphed in its use of simple means to tell an epic story.

Torsek's acting, especially considering his curtain-to-curtain stage time, was dazzling. With a booming, British-accented voice, the white-bearded actor gave vivid life to lines that were joyful, terrified, witty, dejected, vengeful and desperate. He showed a palpable bond with his old mother, the dog Bruno, his aboriginal wife and even an awestruck little boy he meets in London. Moments in the play, like a delightfully choreographed wedding dance ceremony and a sea-turtle-riding grand finale, were particularly moving.

The rest of the cast performed superbly as well, with the only criticisms residing in a few upstaged visuals and a couple of stuttered lines. Perhaps best loved was the adorably loyal hound Bruno. Played by Mike Ryan in an orange, ear-flapped winter hat, Bruno dog-paddled through the water with his drowning master, barked at menacing aborigines and regularly showered de Rougemont with lickings. Karen Aldridge, who played a multitude of roles, also shone as the salty sea captain and island wife of de Rougemont.

Aside from Torsek's brilliant portrayal, the play's biggest success was in its set design. Made up of a simple wooden floor strewn with changing arrangements of travel boxes and suitcases, the stage was backed by a clothesline hung with sheets and flanked by odd items like sheet metal and cowhide drums, which were used for sound effects. Like the supporting characters themselves, each piece of the set also had several different roles. The travel boxes were stacked and used to form a massive sailing ship, a blazing campfire and even an English bathtub. The clothesline curtain at one point was crowned with several colorful masks, becoming instantly a group of tribal elders. And the stage itself, with the aid of innovative lighting and shadow puppetry, was everything from a roiling ocean to a crowded street.

The story, though undeniably comical, told a deeper and more poignant tale of deception. By combining elements of books he'd read and stories he'd heard, de Rougement sprinkles his mild three-year adventure with romantic ornamentations and a few outright lies. Yet the lesson learned by the end of the play, with an impoverished de Rougemont discredited, broken and perhaps senile, is that the difference between fact and fiction is only a minor detail. The story itself is the most valuable thing of all.

SHIPWRECKED! continues through Aug. 30 at UCSC's Theatre Arts Mainstage. For schedule visit Tickets range from $15 to $46 at or 831.459.2159.

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