Review of “Endurance” at Shakespeare & Company
by Gail Burns and Abby Turner
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“Optimism is true moral courage” – Sir Ernest Shackleton
Abby Turner: Wow! Mega wow. “Endurance” – created and performed by Split Knuckle Theatre – blew me away! A fresh, dark, brilliant, and silly disaster drama of edgy intelligence. I just want to begin with an important piece of advice: call the box office now.
Gail Burns: Right! This show is only at Shakespeare & Company until July 15 and it is not to be missed. I keep reminding my neighbors to make use of their 40% Berkshire County Resident Discount, but there are lots of other discounts available and don’t forget the ½ Tix Booths (Locations and Hours here)
Abby: I realize that I am going to have to watch out for too many superlatives, but I am still in the heady excitement of an opening night standing ovation.
Who would have thought that the saga of four insurance agents scrambling to save their jobs in the midst of economic chaos could be a heroic drama as these 99%-ers struggle against extraordinary odds in the soulless, merciless absurdity of corporate culture?
Gail: If anyone needs proof that “Corporations are not people” they should see this play pronto. Although there are lots of laughs here and the ultimate message is one of hope, this is essentially a tragedy of our times.
Split Knuckle Theatre – Jason Bohon, Andrew Grusetskie, Michael Toomey, and Greg Webster – have devised this piece from scratch, along with writer Nick Ryan. Their Mission Statement reads: “Split Knuckle is a critically acclaimed company that creates dynamic, physical, visually striking theatre from simple materials. Through imagination, text, and movement, we create vast landscapes, vivid characters, and epic stories.”
Here they have interwoven the story of these benighted 21st century Hartford insurance agents with the story of the 1914-1916 ordeal of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance in the Antarctic. There are four actors, some antiquated office furniture and three purpose-built rolling tables on stage. These, combined with Dan Rousseau’s masterful lighting, the wonderful recorded background music, and some folk songs and hymns sung a cappella by the cast tell the whole story.
I can only speak for myself, but the songs the cast sang as the Endurance crew was literally the soundtrack of my childhood. My British father used to play those songs on the piano – On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at, The Skye Boat Song, All Through the Night – to me hearing each one was like a surprise meeting with an old friend. If only they’d sung Sosban Fach or Lord Rendal I would have been in heaven.
Abby: The unlikelihood of finding heroism in an insurance office is intrinsic to the humor of the play. And what heroism it is.
Walter Spivey (Toomey), suddenly promoted to manager of his claims department after all of middle management has been fired in a corporate bloodbath, looks for inspiration to Ernest Shackleton’s desperate and triumphant struggle against the antarctic cold for survival almost a hundred years ago.
Gail: I loved the scene in which The Powers That Be (TPTB) – represented by the rest of the four man cast with metal wastebaskets on their heads – tell Spivey that they can’t afford to train him for his new position and send him to the public library to find a book, but that the firm won’t pay for any late fees he incurs! Then the threesome turn into the library, the librarian, the patrons, the books themselves…just brilliant.
Abby: The piece would not work if it were not for the action rapidly shuttling between 21st century Hartford and the Antarctic nearly a century ago, while using the office furnishings to convey pack ice, tossing ships, and the bleak starkness and darkness of the antarctic as well as the souless, gray environment of the modern corporate office. No bright colors are used in the set, lighting, or Lucy Brown’s costumes.
Gail: In their program notes Split Knuckle asks: “[America is] currently embroiled in two wars, a mounting national debt, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, record unemployment, and a deadlocked congress…how will history judge our response to adversity?”
The answer the company posits is that there is nothing significantly changed or lacking in the human capacity for determination, adaptation, and, yes, endurance, but that we are now up against a completely different foe. Shackleton and company survived the harshest conditions of nature, but there is nothing natural about the current corporate climate.
Abby: With apocalyptic intensity and inspired absurdity I found myself as moved by the fight for survival of the insurance agents as I am by that of the explorers. The characters were masterfully acted and clearly defined individuals. I was rooting for each one of them.
Gail: Each actor played both an insurance agent and at least one of the Shacketon crew. While the modern day men were fictional, the crew members were all real people: photographer James Hurley and engine expert Thomas Orde-Lees portrayed by Bohon; Captain Frank Worsley and carpenter Harry “Chippy” McNish played by Grusetskie; second-in-command Frank Wild played by Toomey; and Shackleton himself, played by Webster. These were all remarkably different characters and it was always clear who was playing who when using only the addition of a hat or the removal of eyeglasses.
I was also very impressed with the variety of American, English, Welsh, Scottish, an Australian dialects used. Kudos to Dialect Coach David Alan Stern and the cast.
Abby: The physicality of the acting hovered between subtly choreographed antics and speeding drama as the insurance lackeys tried to avert catastrophe. The company succeeded in creating a sense of real edge-or-the-seat hilarity with a riveting subtlety of character.
Gail: I loved the physical metaphors. Early in the show we see the elaborate “dance” of the cumbersome claims-filing procedure, and its streamlined by the end of the play. When Spivey suggests the team look at the impossible workload TPTB have dumped in their laps, the cast literally picked up the table they were working at and look at it upside down. Wonderful stuff.
The modern day characters were very nicely developed too. Ben (Webster) is a brash, ambitious, chauvinistic New Englander. Larry (Bohon) lives in his mother’s basement at age 35 and is seeking “inner peace” in the corporate breakroom. Mark loves the order and predictability of the staid office procedures. And Walter (Toomey), who shares a first name with Thurber’s Mr. Mitty by no accident, begins as a spineless cypher who develops into a kind and efficient leader over the course of the play. We learn is that people can grow, develop and change.
The tools Split Knuckle uses to accomplish this delightfully different evening of theatre are simple. The most basic are when just a few tables, chairs and maybe a ladder are used to recreate the setting and in this respect, Endurance has pioneered some really new and nifty tricks. Then there is the script, taking a classic case of endurance against the icy grip of an unforgiving landscape and conflating it with an indifferent corporation’s approach to profit-making. This creates political theatre that is not only metaphoric, but realistic. Great theatrical basics combined with a great story always result in spellbinding theatre, and Endurance scores about as high as any production I have seen in a long time. As you said at the start of this review, Abby, people should not hesitate to go and be entertained. And enlightened. And amazed.
Split Knuckle Theatre
Harry “Chippy” McNish
GailSez 2010 Comments on “69° South: The Shackleton Project”at MASS MoCA