By Samuel L. Leiter
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.
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.
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).