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Before Balloon Boy, there was Louis De Rougemont

Believe It or Not

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At 11:29 a.m. on Oct. 15, amateur scientist Richard Heene of Ft. Collins, Colo., called 911, worried that his son Falcon had snuck onto an experimental balloon right before takeoff. He said that the boy was missing and presumed to be floating 7,000 feet in the air.

The authorities acted swiftly. Denver International Airport was temporarily shut down, planes were diverted, and helicopters tracked the balloon for 60 miles. The media covered it as fervently as if it was the flying saucer it resembled. At 1:35 p.m. the balloon landed in Keenesburg, Colo. The boy was not inside. Had he fallen or had the balloon been unoccupied the whole time?

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief a few hours later when Falcon was found hiding in the garage. His parents were overjoyed — but for what reason? Could the whole thing have been a hoax? Within days Falcon had admitted as much on national television; he even vomited when pumped for more information. Heene was a publicity hound, prepared to do anything to gain attention. This time, though, his stunt backfired. Viewers who'd spent half a day worrying about his son felt duped.

Heene wasn't the first public figure to fall from grace. A century ago, Louis De Rougemont returned from a 30-year-long sea voyage with tales of distant islands, monstrous beasts, and rides on the backs of sea turtles. As in Heene's case, the populace lapped up his well-told tales, which were serialized in British newspapers. He was honored by Queen Victoria. When his BS was finally debunked, he quickly fell from favor, despised by the same public that had held him in high esteem, his fabulous tale-telling abilities ignored. Like Heene, Rougemont hungered for exposure, and as a result, the seaman eventually rebranded himself as the world's greatest liar.

In the Village Playhouse's Shipwrecked, College of Charleston theater professor Evan Parry plays the yarn-spinning Rougemont as he sets sail on a pearl-fishing expedition with a pirate captain.

Shipwrecked is written by Donald Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Dinner with Friends. Commissioned by the Theatre for Young Audiences, Margulies decided not to try to compete with the spectacle of modern movies or video games. Instead he decided to take a step back, tying in Rougemont's biography with his own fascination with the Victorian style of staged storytelling.

This stripped-down, family-friendly version of Rougemont's life is packed with adventure, wonderment, and scenarios intended to stimulate the audience's imagination, not dull it. Give them everything on a plate and they're passive. Get them to see Rougemont's world with their mind's eye and something fantastic happens. A giant octopus imagined by a child will be far more spectacular than one built by a regional theater company.

Parry will be accompanied by Katherine Chaney and Addison Dent, both senior theater majors at Charleston County's School of the Arts. They play 30-40 characters between them, with myriad costumes in trunks and on hooks around the stage. There's shadow puppetry and live sound effects, all created before the audience's eyes.

"It's a jumping off point," says director Keely Enright, "to introduce contemporary audiences to the storytelling theater of the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries."

According to Keely, this is more than a seafarer's big fish tale. It expresses some profound views on veracity. "Shipwrecked looks at storytelling for its own sake," she explains, "saying that you don't need to pick every nit to find out the truth."

As with PURE's latest It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, the Playhouse is using a few actors to convey a huge cast. Enright describes Shipwrecked as a radio play if radio had existed in the 1890s. "The actors are having a great time, but they've been working their fannies off with all the props and wigs," she says, "while maintaining the integrity of their characters." The director thinks she's either brave or foolish to put the show on at this time for an audience used to Christmas fare. "I really love this play, and it didn't seem to fit any other time in our season. So we're taking a risk and counter-programming it for the holidays."

Shipwrecked is more accessible for families than A Christmas Story, the Playhouse's previous holiday show; there are no stocking-legged lamps here. "Margulies creates what it's like to be a sailor for the first time in the Victorian era," says Enright. "It's very exciting, swashbuckling fun."

If you're not expecting grand sets or special effects, then chances are you'll find something to like in this seaborne saga, whether you believe it or not.

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