Monday, February 23, 2009

The 81st Oscars: Entering the 21st Century

I watch the Oscars avidly, but like most people, have begun to find them boring in recent years. From the opening, insipid red carpet interviews to the long-awaited always too late end, they’ve seemed banal and ridiculous exercises in star-gazing more than celebrations of filmmakers’ accomplishments. Last night’s new and revised show was a vast improvement over the recent past, as a fresh set of producers created a new look and a new feel for the broadcast, jettisoning the lame comedy (for the most part) and the uninspired patter between ill-at-ease presenters. The show’s new writers (no sign of the much over-used and comically exhausted Bruce Vilanch this time around) made the evening almost sophisticated, reaching for the wry and the ironic without the kind of cynicism that might make that approach harder to take.

The Tina Fey/Steve Martin routine, in fact, epitomized the evening’s tone. Presenting the awards for best original and adapted screenplay, they stood together in front of a screen that displayed a typescript of their own dialogue, which then morphed into dialogue and filmic descriptions for the movies in question, as the brief, fully realized scenes played under the words. Fey and Martin brought their usual dry wit to the routine, acting the brief moment more than reading it from prompters. Most of the presentations evinced the same bright spontaneity, which only comes from talented actors who’ve carefully rehearsed their shtick.

Hugh Jackman, the evening’s host, brought lots of earnest energy to the evening, a welcome respite from the snarky attempts at industry deprecation that usually characterize the host’s work. Although he stars in the Wolverine film franchise—about which I know nothing except for those knife-like things that sprout between his knuckles when he’s angry—Jackman is a theatre song and dance man. Like several of the evening’s stars, he “played gay” in The Boy from Oz, playing songwriter/performer Peter Allen, giving a physically unleashed, terrific performance. Jackman’s also performed in Oklahoma and other Broadway musicals, and he proved his stuff recently hosting the Tony’s.

Jackman’s opening musical routine was a bit forced. The premise was that despite the lack of a budget for an opening number, Jackman put one together anyway. This occasioned stage hands schlepping out rough hewn-looking little two-dimensional sets, in front of which Jackson performed a Bill Crystal-esque sung medley of references to the awarded films and actors. The number might have fallen flat, but Jackman is hard to resist. In a moment of rehearsed spontaneity, he pulled Anne Hathaway onto the stage with him, where she gamely sang (in a beautiful, strong soprano) and horsed around. Everyone seemed willing to give Jackman the benefit of the doubt, which made the proceedings more, well, human and warmer than usual.

The rearranged seating also helped. Jackman moved in close to the elite crowd sitting in semi-circular rows of seats down front, standing on a modified thrust stage with steps down into the nearby crowd that he used liberally. The translucent curtains that framed the arched proscenium were designed to create a cabaret atmosphere, harkening back to the days when the ceremony was delivered to Hollywood’s royalty as they were seated at tables, eating and drinking (not unlike the Golden Globe awards). The choice made the evening seem more intimate; very few camera shots panned the larger crowd in the still enormous Kodak Theatre.

The evening’s contrived narrative hinged on teaching spectators how films are made, from the initial script development to production design to shooting to marketing to, ostensibly, their awards. Although the story became a bit forced and inevitably rushed by the end, the light (or lite?) pedagogy was inoffensive and mostly effective. Rather than standing at sterile podiums, most presenters stood further into the stage, surrounded by props that evoked the filmic aspect of the moment. The choice made the television picture more visually interesting, and disrupted the typically stiff pose of actors standing behind a microphone reading silly dialogue.

Many of these moments, interestingly enough, turned into shtick in which the female presenter admonished the male presenter for his excesses. Jennifer Aniston chastised Jack Black for speaking badly about Dreamworks; he said he made movies for them but then bet on Pixar for all the awards. Poised, smart Natalie Portman was forced to deal throughout her skit with Ben Stiller, who was made up as the recalcitrant, “I’ve-retired-from-acting” Joaquin Phoenix. As Stiller stayed in character through the whole bit (wearing a bushy full fake beard and dark sunglasses), Portman’s irritation with the impersonation seemed to become more and more aimed at Stiller. But she soldiered on and made the most of it. Too bad, though, that intelligent women had to be sacrificed to the sophomoric humor of their presenting partners.

Baz Lurhmann, of Moulin Rouge! and this year’s Australia fame, choreographed the evening’s one lavish production number, which saw Jackson and Beyoncé Knowles singing various phrases from movie musicals over the years. Meant as a throw back to a Follies-style extravaganza, the number looked more like A Chorus Line, with various dancing boys and girls lined up and standing tall to flatter Jackson’s and Knowles’ duets. Poor Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens were trotted out to harmonize; they looked terribly young and uncomfortable, knowing they were sops to the younger audience the show’s producers seemed to be courting.

This rather long number, which ended with Jackson proclaiming “The movie musical is back!” could easily have been cut. But the two leads worked very hard to make it all look easy. In some ways, the number honored the actors’ labor, which is always curiously missing from the Oscar telecast.

Another of this year’s innovations was to have the awards to actors presented by a set of five previous winners. Each was announced with clips from their various award-winning performances and/or their acceptance speeches, after which tall panels lifted into the wings to reveal the past winners. Eva Marie Saint, Whoopi Goldberg, Tilda Swinton, Goldie Hawn, and Anjelica Houston presented the Best Supporting Actress award (won by Penélope Cruz). Each of the women spoke directly to one of the nominees, extolling her role in some detail. The picture cut between the presenter and the nominee, most of whom had tears in their eyes.

Although I can imagine that some spectators might deride this technique, I found it moving to hear actors testifying to one another’s work, and much more satisfying than watching a film clip preparatory to staring at the nominees in five small frames waiting for their names to be called. The strategy honored the work and the history of the award at once, and brought a more intimate touch of human feeling to the proceedings. Raquel Welch, Shirley McClaine, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, and last year’s Best Actress winner, Marion Cotillard, presented to this year’s five Best Actress nominees, and were all on hand for hugs and kisses when Kate Winslet won for The Reader.

This year’s acceptance speeches, too, seemed way above the abysmal par set by recent Oscar shows. Someone must have instructed the winners that, in addition to speaking for no more than 45 seconds, they tell a meaningful story rather than simply reading a list of people they’d like to thank. Most personalized the award with anecdotes that made them much more interesting, fleshing out the narratives of filmmaking and artists’ lives that circulated throughout the evening.

Perhaps most moving was Dustin Lance Black’s speech when he accepted the award for best original screenplay for Milk. Choking back tears, he described the pain of his own coming out story and dedicated his work to young people, so that they might not have to repeat his own history of suffering.

Likewise, Sean Penn, winning for his wonderful performance as Harvey Milk in the film Black wrote, chastised demonstrators apparently holding homophobic signs outside the Kodak Theatre. He shamed those who voted against California’s Prop 8, which invalidated the recently bestowed right of gays and lesbians to marry, and called for equal rights for everyone. Penélope Cruz, in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, referred to how films bring people together around the globe, and said she’s proud to be part of the industry.

Heath Ledger’s family accepted his posthumous Best Supporting Actor award, butchering their moment with mumbled, inarticulate remarks that thankfully did nothing to invalidate how much Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight deserved to be recognized. In the Best Actress race, Kate Winslet seemed something of a surprise win, stealing thunder from Meryl Streep, who contemplated her fifteenth nomination with her youngest daughter sitting awkwardly by her side. (The poor girl had a front row seat, which put her in most camera shots. She spent the night hugging herself; I guess she was cold in that strapless dress.)

The audience seemed well behaved. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie laughed politely and were good sports about the occasional joke lobbed their way. Jennifer Aniston’s presentation and her seating within the same close circumference as the Jolie-Pitt’s seemed designed to create some star tension, but the celebrities handled their proximity like pros. Each loser seemed gracious in his or her defeat, each winner rightfully radiant without being arrogant.

Only Bill Maher, in fact, marred the evening with his miserable presentation of the best documentary awards. Right, we know he made a film this year; Religulous got generally decent reviews for its smart critique of organized religion. But Maher seemed in a genuine, rather than rehearsed, huff about not being nominated, and seemed to ad lib a few snarky tone-deaf jabs at the audience that only made him look foolish.

Slumdog Millionaire triumphed, no surprise, winning most of the many awards for which it was nominated, including best director, best song, best editing, and of course best picture. Much of the Indian cast was there, including the fresh-faced Dev Patel and his on-screen love, Freida Pinto. Each of the young boys and girls who played Jamal and Latika at various stages of their lives were also present, along with most of the key adult character actors. The gathering read a bit awkwardly, as one white man after another got up to thank the Academy for their award, demonstrating what a colonialist project Slumdog perhaps might have been. But the rags-to-riches story, and the film’s great heart, prevailed.

The Academy Awards ceremony will never be as big or as important as, say, the Super Bowl. But for people invested in film and performance and what it means to share stories about our lives, the broadcast will always be one of those rare moments of connection, just as Penélope Cruz said about the movies. This year, the proceedings were dwarfed by President Baraka Obama’s inauguration, and the frisson of immediacy, of sharing the moment with people all over the world that that televised event entailed.

Even so, the Oscar show seemed to tap into something equally prideful about our humanity. The humble knowledge that it matters what we know of one another and how our stories are told seemed key to the evening, as well as the processes of identification and empathy across difference that makes it all work.

That’s entertainment,

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, February 20, 2009

The L Word's Season Six: Going, Going, Almost Gone . . .

The sixth and last season of The L Word constructs the ending of its dyke drama around the mysterious death (murder?) of Jenny Schechter, the character everyone loves to hate. I have to say that I wasn’t an early adopter of the antipathy for Jenny, as were so many fans of the show. When the first season or two centered on her coming out story, I even found aspects of her experience resonant and somehow true. I still remember, for instance, her decision to visit Marina (a character I much preferred loving to hate) in the Planet’s office after closing time one evening, with the formerly resistant Jenny now peeling off her top and succumbing to her new, impossible-to-corral Sapphic desire.

But since the show has embraced its fans’ distaste for the character, Jenny’s arrogance and narcissism have become loathsome, so it’s only appropriate that the swan song season should focus on her early demise. The flashback structure lets us anticipate what we hope will be a delicious and deserved death. (This sounds like quite a cold thing to say, but in the fantasy/melodrama/comedy vein of the show, it’s entirely appropriate.)

In the first episode of season six, the girls (and that’s The Girls, not Les [or Lez] Girls, to you) huddle in Bette and Tina’s living room (which I always find remarkably small, given the lavish décor and generous spread of the rest of their fantasy house), watching in shock as Jenny’s body is removed on a stretcher after she’s found floating face down in the Ur-couple’s pool. The Sunset Boulevard-esque device is fun and effective; each of the next several episodes flashes back to set up a different potential murderer, planting enough motive among the main characters to persuade spectators that any one of them might have done Jenny in, and sending us barreling toward the show’s grand exit.

The L Word has only ever been as good as each episode’s writer/producer and director. The sixth season’s first, written by Ilene Chaiken, The L Word’s creator and executive producer, was typically terrible. Chaiken has never been the best of its many scribes; I cringe when I see her name in an episode’s opening credits as writer or director. Her dialogue is flatfooted and awkward, and the characters’ interactions are always less complex and witty when she’s at the helm.

True to form, the first episode of season six was filled with obvious, stagy patter and melodramatic events, most of which set up the subsequent episodes: Bette and Tina’s plan to adopt another baby and their over-the-top rush to the E.R. when Angie gets a cold; Shane’s dejected determination to win back Jenny’s friendship after betraying her by having sex with Niki at the Les Girls wrap party; Helena’s chastity, while she invests her time and energy into the new, upscale evening disco arm of The Planet, in which she’s Kit’s new business partner; Tina’s despair over the hetero-izing of Lez Girls, which by the second episode has been renamed The Girls and its ending changed so that the main character goes back to men; Bette’s friction with Jodi, who’s now got a vendetta against her boss and former lover; and Alice and Tasha’s attempt to mend their faltering relationship.

Although the story-line is no doubt produced by committee, Chaiken’s rendering of the characters rings hollow and sends the proceedings plummeting from the realm of guilty pleasure and into embarrassing boredom. Thankfully, the redoubtable Rose Troche wrote and directed the second episode and several more this season, returning The L Word to its more parodic outlook and moving it along with a much lighter, wittier touch. Subsequent episodes have mostly maintained a more satirical élan, but you can also feel the producers’ urgency about developing new plot threads for this last season while also tying up loose ends as it moves toward its wrap.

The women’s various relationships—both as couples and within the larger kinship network that’s perhaps always been one of the show’s most interesting and successful projects—have grounded The L Word’s view of its very partial lesbian community. Alice and Tasha, whose interracial pairing is interesting mostly for the class differences between them, struggle to stay together despite the clashes of values and interests that continually threaten to break them up.

Their second episode scene in a couple’s therapist’s office was both hysterical and sad, as it nicely clarified Alice’s inadvertent but nearly total domination of her girlfriend. Alice answered each question the shrink addressed to the more reticent Tasha, talking for her and about her as Tasha sat in uncomfortable silence. By the end of the session, the shrink suggested they’re too different to stay together, which only appeared to strengthen their resolve to work things out. Leisha Hailey’s Alice continues to be the show’s bright spot, whether because of her innate sensitivity to lesbian relationship vibes (if I could be so essentialist to suggest), or because of how genuinely she responds the game Rose Rollins’s laidback demeanor. Rollins’s/Tasha’s throaty laugh, which throws her chin up and her head back with pleasure, is one of the show’s unadulterated, infectious delights.

Then there’s Phyllis (Cybill Shepherd), the newly out provost, and her determined butchy lover, Joyce (played by the redoubtable Jane Lynch), who insists they marry and proclaim life-long dedication. The show’s portrait of Phyllis’s work as the provost of a major university is so ridiculous it’s campy, capped by Joyce’s appearance, in the nude, in Phyllis’s office to propose holy matrimony. Phyllis’s betrayal of Bette, when Jodi threatens to sue her former lover for sexual harassment, seems cold and out of character, although Phyllis has always been played more for laughs than for depth.

After several uncomfortable professional moments, in which it’s clear that Jodi’s career has taken off after the opening of her piece exposing Bette’s disloyalty, Bette resigns from the university, blithely leaving her prominent deanship to return to the art world. The big-eyed Elizabeth Berkeley was quickly introduced as an old college chum who reappears in Bette’s life as a recently divorced, settlement-wealthy art collector, who needs Bette’s expertise to run her gallery and whose not so subtle flirtation with Bette fans the always smoldering flames of Tina’s jealousy.

The appearance of still another woman to distract Bette from her long-term if fraught and only just recently reaffirmed relationship with Tina feels forced. I don’t know why the show brands Bette as an always-straying Jezebel, but there’s something incipiently racist about this aspect of The L Word, as though being biracial keeps Bette from making clear choices about whom to love.

Tina’s constant jealousy has reduced her character to a charade of a whiny house-frau. Laurel Holloman’s already superficial acting chops haven’t been flattered by the recent vagaries her role, which requires too much righteous indignation—over Bette’s new/old friend, over the disintegration of the lesbian perspective of Lez Girls, which she produced, and over the possibility of adopting another child. Holloman spends too much time with her voice and her eyebrows raised, and her relationship with Beals has so far lost much of its sexy luster. I hope it returns by the series’ end, as their erotic connection has always been one of the show’s main attractions.

In one of the most blatantly ripped-from-the-headlines plot threads, transman Max has become pregnant, thanks to his gay male lover Tom’s sexual ministrations. Max, now sporting a full (and very unconvincing) beard, discovers his pregnancy too late to abort, and Tom at first claims to be willing to raise the child with him. But Max discontinues his testosterone treatment (which doesn’t seem to affect the fullness of his beard) and finds himself swelling and suffering from too-female pregnancy hormones.

A scene in Episode Four in which Max disrobes, revealing an obviously prosthetic belly and breasts and the utterly disposable dildo he packs, is pedagogical—as though the producers want to instruct the audience in the apparatus necessary for a transgender person to perform masculinity—and laughable, as Max’s equally plastic-appearing stomach and boobs give off an unnatural sheen.

It could be giving the producers too much credit to suggest that they’re underlining the construction of both masculinity and femininity in this scene. And such a critique doesn’t quite work because the moment is so flat and overwrought, and Max’s psychology so superficially drawn. When he throws a jealous hissy fit over Tom’s innocent flirtations at a gay bar, Tom has second thoughts about their partnership and decides to walk, emptying his closets and drawers without warning or word. Episode four ended with Max’s discovery that he’s been abandoned by his erstwhile partner. With his trans surgery postponed because of his pregnancy, Max’s life is left very much up for grabs. Here, the story line veers from its obvious referent, the transman Thomas “Pregnant Man” Beattie, who maintains a stable relationship with his female partner and is now pregnant with their second child.

In another far-fetched plot development, after Jenny skewers Shane and Niki when she catches them in flagrante delicto, she admits that she’s in love with Shane, who takes the bait and hops into Jenny’s bed with barely a second thought. Earlier in the series, the two women’s friendship was one of its sustaining elements, their easy physical and emotional camaraderie always grounding and pleasurable, especially given Shane’s disastrous affairs and Jenny’s increasingly self-centered self-stylings.

But to recreate them as a couple forces their intimacy into a nearly incestuous phase, and implies reductively that close lesbian friendships inevitably fall into sexual romance. The rest of the crowd expresses impatient antipathy for their new status as a couple, and even Shane seems dubious. Jenny’s increasingly excessive jealousy, and her insistence that Shane stop smoking and stop flirting, can’t bode well for their romantic longevity.

Of all the characters, Helena’s trajectory tops the pack as the most surreal. She’s gone from being the mean-spirited, competitive, wealthy art benefactor of her first season on the show to a rich girl disinherited by her mother (played with ecstatic verve by the terrific Holland Carter), to a clueless inmate serving jail time for fraud, to an escapee who disappears to a Caribbean island to have a fling with her escaped cellmate, to serving as Kit’s partner at the Planet.

In her insistent indifference to dating, who should reenter the scene but Dylan (Alexandra Hedison), the erstwhile straight woman who blackmailed Helena earlier in the series by seducing her into a relationship that set her, too, up for charges of sexual harassment which (if only temporarily) ruined Helena’s life. The otherwise chaste Helena can’t resist Dylan’s reinvigorated seductions, despite her earlier betrayal. Dylan has come out as queer and returned to the Planet (and the lesbian planet) determined to woe Helena. Despite her friends’ admonishments to steer clear, Helena can’t help but find her interest rekindled.

In episode five, the girl gang use Niki to test the authenticity of Dylan’s renewed love for Helena. When Dylan successfully resists Niki’s seductions (as the others watch through the Planet’s elaborate surveillance system), Helena marches back into Dylan's arms. Their episode-closing love-making moved me more than any of the characters’ sex scenes so far this season, perhaps because their intimacy actually forwarded their characters’ development, rather than throwing a sop to the show’s voyeuristic spectators (of all sexual persuasions).

Kit, meanwhile, flirts with the Planet’s drag queen disk jockey, a large African American man made up in high camp femininity, whose deep, laconic voice seems startling coming from such a package. Poor Kit (Pam Grier) always gets the most superficial treatment from the show’s writers, her relationships the most outlandish and fantastical. Once written as a recovering alcoholic with demons of her own to chase, Kit now serves as the other characters’ helpmeet, commenting from the sidelines on actions from which she’s always strangely excluded. Grier, though, has settled nicely into the role’s absurdities, delivering her Greek chorus commentaries with irony and sardonic attitude. But the writers waste the character’s—and Grier’s—potential.

More than halfway through this season’s eight episode arc, The L Word has maintained much of the sly self-referential satire it established in season five. In one episode, Shane tells Jenny that she’s running off to coif Eric Mabius’s hair, a sweet inside reference to the man who played Tim, Jenny’s swim coach husband, in the show’s first few seasons, who now stars as the clueless magazine entrepreneur on Ugly Betty. More of those moments would add to the show’s fun.

Fans who’ve stuck with The L Word over these last six years have become part of the extended sphere of references that have created community not only on screen but off. Our Chart, spun off from earlier seasons’ references to Alice’s dyke genealogy project, has become successful on line, and the show’s official web site shills for jewelry, curios, and other products that entice spectators to be part of its world. Relatively fewer criticisms of The L Word’s dyke exclusivity seem to float around lately, in part, I’d suggest, because most spectators know it’s all a fantasy anyway. Part of the fun has become to simply go with it, to enjoy its excesses of character and plot and to tolerate its rather sweetly absurd attempts at relevance and authenticity.

After all, a lesbian soap opera remains a gift to those of us still eager for dyke representations of any kind, who still thrill to mainstream references to what remain, for many of us, subaltern lives. Even if those “lives and loves”—as the show’s repulsive theme song repeats ad nauseam—are represented by a tiny portion of a very partially drawn lesbian “community,” The L Word gives fans public visibility to enjoy and contest, to affirm and critique. I have to admit that I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, February 09, 2009


Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), at Primary Stages in New York, breaks the mold of playwright Donald Margulies’s typical style. Among others, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends is a staunchly realist piece about family (or more broadly kinship) relations; A Model Apartment is a slightly more expressionistic story of family trauma that draws on the Holocaust for its central metaphor about avarice, boundaries, and people’s inability to outrun a horrific collective past. Shipwrecked!, on the other hand, is a romp, a biographical tall-tale told in direct address by a late 19th century British voyager named Louis de Rougemont, a bit of a mountebank who imparts his fantastical life story to the present theatre audience he acknowledges openly.

Played with great verve and charm by Michael Countryman, de Rougemont is a foppish but sincere storyteller, fully aware of the irony of his tale but completely committed to winning us over, chapter by theatrical chapter, the title of each of which he announces with great physical and emotional energy. On a stripped down stage bare to the narrow theatre’s brick walls, Countryman spins a fantastical yarn that by its end is cast into troubling doubt. By relating de Rougemont’s idiosyncratic rise and fall, Margulies addresses how and why human beings come of age in certain directions and not others, as well as how we convince ourselves and others of the truthfulness of the stories we tell about ourselves. The allegory coursing beneath the story is as relevant and contemporary as James Frey’s fabrication of parts of his memoir, or any number of recent literary embellishments of publicly narrated personal truths.

But at heart, Margulies’s Shipwrecked! is a play about theatre and the imagination, an enchanting demonstration of how the simplest tools of this illusionist trade can conjure richly drawn, far flung worlds in which we can briefly invest our emotions. On a slightly raked small round platform in the center of the playing space, de Rougemont tells his tale. Dressed in the linen and cotton vestments of the mid- to late-1800s British middle class, he describes his sequestered youth as a sickly child whose over-protective mother reads him adventure stories that stoke his desire to cast off on his own.

When he turns 17, he leaves his mother’s womb-like protection to seek his fortune, and meets instead his fate. The dissolute captain of a pearl-diving expedition in the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia takes him on as a ship’s mate. But when the greedy skipper refuses to turn back from the treasures he’s found in the face of an apocalyptic storm, the boat capsizes and only de Rougemont and the trusty ship’s dog, Bruno, survive. They drift alone at sea until they’re cast ashore on an island where they provide one another’s sole companionship for the many years of their lonely exile.

After some time, an Aboriginal family who’s also been lost at sea drift ashore and de Rougemont persuades them with effusively reassuring gestures that he means them no harm. The little community of shipwrecked survivors—our “hero,” Bruno the dog, the Aboriginal daughter, her elderly father, and her young brother—overcomes differences of language, race, and culture to build a life of love and kinship. De Rougemont instantly falls in love with the daughter. Eventually, her homesickness inspires him to build a boat that returns the four of them (five including the aging dog) to her tribe, where de Rougemont is greeted as royalty and given a place of local pride.

After his native wife bears him two daughters—both called by names properly English and anachronistic in the Aboriginal outback—de Rougemont’s own homesickness dictates that he find his way back to London, where the tale of his adventures meets first with adulation and then with suspicion. Presenting his story to the Royal Academy, de Rougemont is shouted down and defamed by scientists who dispute the “facts” of his story, including his insistence that he “steered” a giant wild sea turtle with his feet during his time alone on the island.

He is eventually disgraced by investigating journalists who suggest that rather than cavorting as a lonely survivor on a Coral Sea island, or lording over an Aboriginal tribe, de Rougemont actually married and then abandoned a working class woman in Sydney. With disdain, they charge that he never even nearly accomplished the adventures of which he boasts.

The devastated tall-tale-teller tries to reestablish his reputation; in the play’s final scene, he triumphs by riding on the back of a sea turtle whose direction he indeed controls by poking his toes into either of its eyes, theoretically proving that the story of his life is, in fact, true. But the fact that Countryman rides a reptile that’s clearly wooden, circling around on its back by virtue of the revolving turntable under the stage, finally proves only that theatre lets us imagine just about anything.

Shipwrecked! is a light diversion with a built in “so what” factor. The story is sweet and Countryman’s telling is virtuosic, especially as assisted by Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays, two terrific performers who circulate through the variety of supporting roles that help propel the performance. Bobb and Grays and various stagehands—almost Bunraku-style—openly provide the aural and visual atmosphere that makes the story so evocative. Part of the production’s fun is in fact seeing the effects produced in a poor-theatre style that underlines how simply theatre can conjure other worlds. Fantastic storms are evoked with sheets of metal, a large thundering drum, and a mobile of tinkling, anachronistic house keys, punctuated by effects that send blinding white light shuttering across the stage.

Shipwrecked!’s transformational acting style is presentational but not Brechtian. That is, while the quicksilver physical changes allow Bobb to play the drooling, lick-happy Bruno in one second, and transform into the leg-clinging brother of the Aboriginal woman in the next, the schizophrenic style isn’t meant to provoke political commentary on the vicissitudes of history and agency. Instead, with clear and clarifying quick changes in posture, diction, and facial expression, Bobb and Grays illustrate the tale more than they historicize its meanings.

Both supporting actors make their lightning fast transitions with clarity, grace, and commitment, conjuring various worlds and broadly drawn characters with great care, fun and, curiously, humanity. That is, although each character is something of a stereotype—the Aborginal elder and other tribesmen, who carry spears and speak in a guttural invented language; the drunken, careless sea captain; the self-satisfied journalists who prove de Rougemont’s undoing; the ladies who take tea while gossiping about his misadventures; and even de Rougemont’s warmly suffocating mother—Bobb and Grays nonetheless draw them with enough detail and affection to keep from offending.

In addition to the pure joy of watching and hearing backstage effects produce imaginative displays of place, sound, and atmosphere, and seeing acting that demonstrates how mobile, physically virtuosic bodies and voices can inhabit a variety of lives, Margulies’s point seems to be that cultural representations—writ here in the adventure stories that tell young Louis what his life should be—influence our coming of age in ways that require us to measure up to their excesses.

What is a life if it’s not full of the life-threatening thunderstorms or encounters with “savages” and “cannibals” in which de Rougemont prevails by displaying the impressive acrobatic feats he’s taught himself in his solitary years as a castaway? What do our lives mean if we can’t point to our own heroism and our ability to connect with human beings different from ourselves, if we can’t retell how we succeeded in meeting our own primal need for connection, respect, and love, however much we might need to fabricate or embellish?

De Rougemont’s ultimate disgrace comes at the hands of a mercurial public who shifts too quickly from adoration to disgust. His downfall resonates with the culturally constructed plight of notorious contemporary stars who can’t withstand the scrutiny of media that both feeds our need for heroes and stokes our self-righteous desire to see them unmasked as only human after all. De Rougemont’s hubris is that he thinks he can be “real” in a world that’s always only illusion, and that he can stand out as “true” in a story that’s as theatrical and imaginary as its illustrative sound effects.

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 Margulies’s treatment of the Aboriginal family as “savages” who need to be civilized, and de Rougemont’s description of his meeting with their tribe as a confrontation with “cannibals.”

That his wife is played by 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 tribe’s royalty, his colonialist adventures reek of the white man’s burden; when his desire to return home overwhelms his happiness with his native wife, he curses the time he’s “wasted” 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 “savage” other before they return triumphantly home to the bosom of “civilization.” De Rougemont’s disgrace doesn’t redeem the fact that he’s told his story with less humanity than he means to convey. Shipwrecked! makes him a hero with whom it’s difficult to identify or ultimately to applaud.

The Feminist Spectator