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Baby, It’s Cold Outside: ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’

May 8th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Spring may be busting out all over, but I’d recommend you unpack your winter gear, get out your compass, and board the nearest icebreaker for Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street to see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the adventurously innovative musical now melting frozen hearts at the Second Stage.

Written by Joe DiPietro (Memphis), with absorbing music by Brendan Milburn and sprightly lyrics by Val Vigoda (husband and wife members of the Groovelily trio), this unusual 90-minute work blends music, comedy, history, and contemporary social angst in a multimedia smoothie I promise won’t give you brain freeze.

Struggling composer-musician Kat (Vigoda), a 41-year-old single woman, lives in a cluttered, ice-cold Brooklyn apartment with her crying five-month-old baby. Meanwhile, her negligent, faithless boyfriend, Bruce (Wade McCollum), who failed to pay the electric bill, tours the country as part of a Journey cover band.

Val Vigoda and Wade McCollum in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Val Vigoda and Wade McCollum in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Using a complex arrangement of electronic musical equipment, including a live-looping machine, she speaks and sings her story while playing an electric violin strapped to her neck, composing and recording it as we watch. (Her playing is supplemented from offstage by keyboard-playing musical director, Ryan O’Connell.) She also chats with Bruce and others (all delightfully played by the versatile McCollum) via Skype, the images being projected on a large upstage screen.

Despairing because of her financial problems—she’s fired from her gig composing music for a video game—Kat tries out an online dating service, Cupid’s Leftovers, “your last stop for any hope of love.” Somehow—perhaps because she hasn’t slept for 36 hours—she gets connected across the years with famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton (McCollum again), who’s in the mood for love.

The banjo-playing Shackleton, who emerges amid clouds of frost from Kat’s refrigerator, enlists her on his fabled Antarctica exploration of 1914-1917 aboard The Endurance. Theatrically (and historically) simplified as it is, the experience, enacted against black and white footage shot during the actual expedition, turns out to be remarkably stirring, for Kat as well as us, not least because of Milburn’s thrusting, compulsive score.

Val Vigoda in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Val Vigoda in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

It takes a little time for Ernest Shackleton to warm you up, what with its skeletonized setting, concert-like platforms, and assorted wooden crates; its unconventional narrative style; and its wide variety of still and moving images. Once you’re on board, though, director Lisa Peterson creatively steers you through a string of wild adventures, including climbing a mountain (of metal scaffolding).

There’s also a thrilling journey in an open boat (those crates do come in handy) across 800 miles of open sea during torrential storms, as Kat and Shackleton seek aid for his 22 men, stranded when their ship, The Endurance, gets icebound.

Best of all, Ernest Shackleton is a tale not only of a famed expedition but an inspirational encounter, hallucinatory as it may be, that both enlightens and empowers the once miserable Kat so that she can take control of her life again. An uplifting coda proves that her ship has, indeed, been righted. Who knows? Perhaps Shackleton’s sappy but uplifting message to stick to your guns through the bad times, as well as the good, will do the same for others. As Ernest and Kat sing:

Never mind that you’re out
on the edge of the earth
and it seems like you’ll never succeed
when you think that you’re down,
fight for all that you’re worth,
and you’ll find that you have
all the strength that you need.

Alexander V. Nichols is the inventive mastermind behind the visual design, with spot-on costuming by Chelsea Cook (mainly black hipster garb for Vigoda and polar gear for Shackleton), while Rob Kaplowitz scores highly for his sound design. The icing (if I may) on the cake, though, is the work of Vigoda and McCollum, both of whom have played these roles in pre-New York productions.

Vigoda, a gifted singer-musician, makes Kate a determined presence, attacking the role with vigor (she was once an army lieutenant). But I was bowled over by the bearded McCollum, a tall, athletic, deep-voiced actor, who not only sings extremely well but displays chameleonic virtuosity in multiple roles and charismatic chops that allow him to be commandingly heroic at one moment and broadly or wryly comic at another. McCollum is one of the most refreshing presences on the current New York stage.

I guess you could say I loved Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through June 11

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

A Bumpy Night: ‘The Layover’

September 2nd, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg in 'The Layover.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg in ‘The Layover.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Leslye Headland’s The Layover, now being slickly produced at Second Stage under Trip Cullman’s smooth direction, begins on Thanksgiving weekend as a plane waits to take off for New York from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Sitting together in business class are Dex (Adam Rothenberg), an attractive man in a smartly tailored suit, and Shellie (Annie Parisse), a good-looking woman in glasses and casual gear; both are appealingly witty, articulate, and fortyish. Naturally, a flirtation begins. She says she teaches American crime fiction at a New York college; he says he’s an engineer who builds things like dams and harbors. He admits to being engaged but she declares she’s single. Little by little they reveal more and more about themselves.

When the flight is canceled they’re forced to stay overnight at a hotel, where the inevitable occurs. So far so good. Dex and Shellie look well matched and we seem to be headed for an interesting romantic comedy layered with the dark shadows cast by their mutual interest in noir fiction and film (Strangers on a Train turns them on). The dialogue is juicy and sassy zingers pop up every now and then.

Headland’s next step is to expose the truth and lies behind what we’ve heard; she places Dex and Shellie’s private lives, with their significant others, on stage, Dex’s at stage right, Shellie’s at left. To say more would require spoilers, which I’ll avoid by merely noting that what we learn is enough to reveal why Dex and Shellie might have succumbed to temptation and why, even after their brief encounter, they can’t get each other out of their minds.

John Procaccino and Quincy Dunn-Baker in 'The Layover.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

John Procaccino and Quincy Dunn-Baker in ‘The Layover.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Much as in an Alan Ayckbourn play we watch each set of characters simultaneously, with the focus shifting back and forth across Mark Wendland’s wide open set (sometimes confusingly). Now and then Dex and Shellie seem to stare longingly at one other across the many miles between them. Numerous projection screens allow video designer Jeff Suggs to enhance the atmosphere with images of the outside world or of classic moments from film noir.

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg in 'The Layover.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg in ‘The Layover.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Once the setup is clear, the play is unable to maintain its footing; neither leading character’s life is interesting or unique enough to keep the dramatic cauldron boiling. (The theme of lies vs. truth is far more compellingly evoked in another current Off-Broadway play, Caught, at La Mama.) The several moments of steaming sensuality between the lovers simply aren’t enough to compensate for The Layover’s multiple implausibilities.

For starters, there’s the difficulty of reconciling the smart, well-informed, even professorial dialogue given to Shellie in the early scenes with what we eventually discover about her. Among other things there’s the way Dex becomes a mysterious benefactor in Shellie’s life; the unexpected, vaguely motivated shift in Dex’s behavior in the final scene; and, most egregious, the inorganic, contrived shocker (despite the noirish foreshadowing) that concludes the action.

There are things to admire in this approximately 90-minute, intermissionless work, especially the performances of Rothenberg and Parisse, who make sizzling love partners. The supporting company—John Procaccino as a grumpy, old invalid; Amelia Workman as an egotistical divorcée, in addition to another role; Quincy Dunn-Baker doubling as a lout and a private eye; and Arica Himmel as a spoiled brat—is satisfactory in shallow roles. Clint Ramos’s costumes, especially the white sheath for Andrea and the sexy, purple, femme fatale number worn by Shellie at the end, are fine, and Japhy Weideman’s moody lighting makes a major contribution.

A word of advice if you visit The Layover: fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.

The Layover
Second Stage: Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through September 18

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).