A Fringe Festival-like production on steroids, this loopy musical revolves around indie, electronic musician/composer and single mother Kat (Val Vigoda) connecting from Brooklyn via Skype to admittedly dead explorer Ernest Shackelton (Wade McCollum) in transit to the Antarctic. This is me, this is my gear, and this is live looping… she sings, video posting on a dating site while expertly playing electric violin. (Live looping seems to be the theater device of the season.) Shackelton responds to her ad: I have journeyed through space and time to be with you.
I admit the above made me wince, but after a bizarre inclusion of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” material becomes entertaining and achieves momentum. The explorer finds Kat’s music an inspiration and, having been trapped in the ice seven months, needs all he and his men can get. Kat’s been awake 36 hours. Is she hallucinating?
When Shackleton steps through her New York “Frigidaire” their two worlds overlap. She hesitantly joins him in Antarctica (off a raised platform into surrounding snow) where the two eventually lead his men to safety. Acknowledgment that the crew eats their sled dogs “and then each other” for sustenance passes like a footnote. His offering whale blubber to people in the front row and lyrics like …adrift under wet reindeer skins 13 months… add color.
Fatalist Kat and optimist Ernest view life differently, though finding herself more able and courageous than presumed, nourished by admiration, she inches towards brighter perspective. At one point, our “bad ass” heroine even goads a weakening Shackleton on. An incongruous, tongue in cheek, western ditty recognizes similarities in insecure, but worthy life choices: …Don’t you give your money to no explorer… Don’t you give your money to no musician…
One actually gets a sense of the wretched adventure before us.
“Real life” intermittently intrudes with a telephone call or Kat’s baby (needless to say Ernest is great with the infant), but doesn’t circle back till the romantic figure’s departure “you’re married?!” and the baby father’s arrival.
Though Joe DiPietro’s Book periodically suffers from trying too hard to be funny and the use of swear words naively expected to shock, most writing knits in well. Making brief appearances, Kat’s nasal-gay boss and deadbeat, stoner, baby father (played by McCollum) would both be better served without cliché attributes.
Music and lyrics are of wildly different quality within this 90 minute saga. Bookended by ungainly, repetitive wording (Val Vigoda) and meandering music (Brandon Milburn), songs at its center are catchy, rousing – especially several sea shanties and a country-colored tune, and ably tell the story. Looping is focused and effective.
Actors Val Vigoda – electric violin and Wade McCollum – banjo are both fine musicians and strong vocalists. Vigoda exudes doubt, pluck, and defiance with naturalistic acting. McCollum’s bravado and wink-wink humor balance the life threatening voyage with farce.
Director Lisa Peterson skillfully leads us from Brooklyn to the Antarctic and back navigating interruptions. Kat’s contemporary demeanor contrasts adroitly with Ernest’s cheerful, outsized ego. Music is nicely integrated. Danger is adeptly conjured.
Production Designer Alexander V. Nichols employs extensive archival footage from the actual expedition. His rough, seemingly spit and glue platforms work well despite all the equipment and wiring.
Rob Kaplowitz’s Sound Design is an evocative asset.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me sometimes challenges patience, but taking the ride is not without rewards.
This piece singles out the third of Shackleton’s voyages to the region, a 1911 crossing of Antarctica from sea to sea via the pole. When the ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice (and then crushed), its crew was forced to camp on sea ice. Using lifeboats, the men made their way first to Elephant Island and then 720 nautical miles to the whaling outpost of South Georgia from where they were rescued.
Production Photos by Jeff Carpenter
Ernest Shackleton and the expedition launching a lifeboat-Wickipedia
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Book – Joe Pietro
Music- Brendan Milburn
Lyrics- Val Vigoda
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Music Director- Ryan O’Connell
Tony Kiser Theatre
305 West 43rd Street
Through June 11. 2017