ERNEST SHACKLETON

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

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“Ernest Shackleton loves me,” and quite honestly, I kind of love him too, at least the hunky, virile portrayal of him by Wade McCollum in Balagan’s latest production of the newly conceived musical by Joe Dipietro, Brendan Milburn, and Valerie Vigoda.

Admittedly, this is probably one of the strangest musicals I have ever seen! (And that’s saying a lot given the absurdist landscape that the contemporary American musical has become in recent years!) But it was, nevertheless, curiously and pleasantly entertaining once Mr. Shackleton took stage with his winter-fresh smile, rugged masculinity, and boundless optimism.

Set in modern-day NYC during the winter, the play actually oscillates between two realms: that of Kat’s cold, small apartment in Brooklyn where she spends her days in an insomniac haze creating music and taking care of her new born baby, and this other fantastical, historical realm in which we journey with Kat, Mr. Shackleton and his crew through the cold, barren wasteland of the Antarctic on an exploratory adventure to cross the icy continent that lies at the bottom of the Earth.

Much like the real life Ernest Shackleton pushed boundaries in his expeditions to Antarctica, this musical also pushes the boundaries in its experimentation with various mediums to tell its story, especially the medium of digital video projection, which I applaud.

Indeed, Ernest first appears to us in digital format, with his glowing smile, snow-covered beard, and his Polly-Anna-I-can-do-anything ambition. He inserts himself into Kat’s world cybernetically as they Skype themselves through snow storms, hurricanes, rough waters, starvation, and alpine barriers. And all of this is expressed primarily through music, for which Vigoda, who plays Kat, wrote the lyrics and plays on her keyboards, drums, and electric violin.

Thus, what the musical represents is a mishmash of stories and mediums: the story of Kat and her struggle to survive as an artist, combined with the story of Ernest and his struggle to survive as an explorer, all told in a literal flurry of electronic images and sound.

This strange brew of a show is an ambitious endeavor even if it does involve only two actors. The technical aspects were quite amazing and reflected a serious amount of thought and work on behalf of all the designers. The work that went into the video projections, in particular, was nothing short of amazing and did much to enhance this production that, otherwise, could have been a bit lackluster.

And on that note, it should be said that the first 20-25 minutes of the show are probably the weakest. It involves only Kat on stage for the most part as she sings about her struggles as an artist, and this becomes really annoying very quickly. But fortunately, things pick up once Ernest appears and the show starts to earnestly (no pun intended) focus on the themes that reverberate: perseverance through struggle, exploration, and experimentalism.

I wouldn’t say that the music and lyrics are the best I’ve ever heard; no songs really jump out and stick with you, but the amount of talent that was demonstrated on that stage was still quite evident, from the scenography to Vigoda’s impressive talents as a musician to McCullom’s commanding stage presence. All of the technical components were there to make this show work.

However, the two main hindrances to this production are the imbalance that exists in terms of the quality of the two actors (he is a much stronger actor than she), and also the storyline itself, which is very strange and almost comes across as two separate plays: that of Kat and her struggles as a modern day musician, and that of Ernest and his quest to conquer a continent. It all just combines into a very bizarre, very puzzling, yet still captivating theatrical experience.

In the end, this musical kind of stuck with me afterward, not because of the music itself or the storyline, but rather because of its quirkiness, its experimentalism, and of course, because of the brilliant performance of McCollum as Shackleton. He was a very versatile actor, not only in his role as the lead character, but also when he played the role of Ponce de Leon as well, which was even more brilliant. I would have loved to see more of those two characters and less of the whining that went on with the character, Kat, at the beginning of the show.

But all in all, this is an interesting show with lots of potential, and again, McCollum was nothing short of brillant!

“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” plays through May 3rd at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. For tickets and info, visit http://www.balagantheatre.org or call 206-329-1050.

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