BWW Reviews: ENDURANCE in New Haven
Imagine this for a plot: The story of the ship in Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 being crushed by natural pack ice and an insurance company being crushed by artificial pack thinking 2008. Implausible? Actually, not. Nick Ryan's play, Endurance, cleverly weaves the two stories together and, as presented by the Split Knuckle Theatre, it's simply brilliant.
Walter Spivey (Christopher Hirsch) works in middle management in a Hartford-based insurance company. The bailout of AIG because of the "once in a hundred year Credit Tsunami" (as described by the esteemed Alan Greenspan) has just been announced, and layoffs are imminent at his firm, BMI. To his surprise, he is promoted, but warned that he and his colleagues, Larry (Jason Bohon), Mark (Andrew Gruetskie) and Ben (Greg Webster) must process 4,162 backlogged claims within the next three months or their entire division will be shut down. The same three actors also play upper management with waste baskets on their heads. They inform Spivey that there is an immediate hiring freeze and no money in the company budget for him to take a quick course on management. So Spivey goes to the public library to find a business management manual. As he pulls various books from the shelves, figures such as Tony Robbins, Rachael Ray, Julius Caesar and others come to life with conflicting ideas on how he can solve his problems. "Tap into the INNER POWER that lives within ALL of us....Take control with the Kama Sutra....execute a Gaul....lead with E.V.O.O." Finally he discovers the obscure book, Endurance: A Leadership Manual, and the story of Shackleton's expedition begins to intermingle with the story about his task at BMI.
Mission impossible? It turns out that it would behoove corporate upper management to study Shackleton's leadership methods. Shackleton personally interviewed all 27 people he accepted on his voyage, and asked them about their personal lives and interests. He treated them as partners. He notes that "monotony and boredom are equally destructive." He encouraged singing and entertainment in between daily routines. Even when the fate of the ship was clear, he told them, "What the ice gets, the ice keeps. We are not going to let the ice get us." Spivey is equally determined and inspired by Shackleton. He gives his overworked staff an afternoon off so they can return to work, feeling refreshed and ready to tackle problems with a new way of looking at things in order to achieve their goals.
The 90-minute play, performed with no interruptions, seems longer, yet never strains the audience. The playwright is chillingly accurate about the way corporations are run. Ryan gets the corporate and news babble down right and is very funny. "We trusted the wrong banks," explains the team from upper management. Health and dental premiums are "no longer cost effective" and BMI, an insurance company, is "getting murdered on the premiums." What's the solution? They take away their workers' chairs, work days, even toilet paper. As one character asked rhetorically, ""Did their friggin' brains fall out their ears?"
The four actors work very, very hard in their various roles, which include Shackleton and some of the crew from the Endurance. Their changes from one character to the other are done with split second timing and precision. No director who is credited for making this unique story told so skillfully and with minimal materials. There is no set design, but very clever use of three tables, three chairs, three waste baskets and a filing cabinet to create Spivey's home, including bed and shower, public transportation, offices, bar and ship. The four actors rely on simple choreography to demonstrate the claim filing procedure and synchronized movement to convey the commuters on the bus and the swaying ship, and they move everything that is on the stage. (Carmen A. Torres is the stage manager, so I give her credit for coming up with exactly what is needed for the play.) Lucy Brown's costumes worked for the actors' various roles. She worked on Endurance for the Split Knuckle Theatre before. Joelle Braun was the dresser for this production and the changes from the present to the past were convincing. Ken Clark's music and Dan Rousseau's lighting, along with Jessica Rosso's light and sound for this stage. The music and lighting were not merely complements but essential enhancements to the show.
Endurance is running through June 29 at the Long Wharf Theatre Stage II. If you have never been there, there is no better reason to discover it now with Endurance. Take a cab from the train station. If you drive, there is free, safe parking. You have no excuse. Every corporate executive and every business school professor and student should see this play, preferably live. A plea to the Split Knuckle Theatre. Please consider taping Endurance and offering it as corporate gifts for the holidays. It could be a win/win/win situation. It would be cheaper than gift baskets. Students and graduates could live up to the title of Masters of Business Administration instead of being Midget Brained A---holes. And the Split Knuckle Theatre company can get its own alternative funding.
The Long Wharf Theatre is located 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. 203-787-4282. www.longwharftheatre.org