BWW Review: THE CONQUEST OF THE SOUTH POLE at Snowlion Repertory Company
The Snowlion Repertory Company has taken a bold step in presenting the New England premiere of a production called The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge.
While the play has German roots, the action here is set in an unlikely place; Rumford, Maine. A group of papermill workers find themselves unemployed and struggling with the emptiness of not being able to build a future and the unnerving prospects of their lives shattering. After gathering together only to find one of the friends, Seiffert (Eric Darrow Worthley) attempting to hang himself, the imaginative and charismatic natural lead of the group, Slupianek (Ian Carlsen), proposes that the friends take a daring voyage to the Antarctic, known as the South Pole. He's not suggesting an actual voyage, rather a re-enacted version of Roald Amundsen's epic journey to be played out in an attic filled with washed garments hanging from clotheslines. To Slupianek, the re-enactment is an attempt to free his friends from the hopelessness that pervades their lives.
Accompany him on the make-believe voyage is Buscher (Cullen Burke), an imposing figure of a man, and Frankieboy (Caleb Streadwick) who solely takes on the role of a husky pulling the sled across the frozen tundra. There's also Braukmann (Ashanti Williams) who defiantly pursues the whimsical venture despite protestations from his wife, Luisa (Maergen Soliman) who thinks the effort is absurd and that the attic in their house should simply remain a place to dry laundry.
In the nine brief scenes that run before intermission, the play takes the audience on a whimsical but very determined journey. At times the performance seems like a group of Children at Play with sing song one liners. At other times, it takes on a very serious tone questioning whether this hardy group of friends can reach the unreachable goal of planting a flag on the South Pole. And more reflective of their own personal journey, will the friends thrive once again from the dismal world in this small mill town?
In a very heart wrenching moment, Buscher takes center stage and challenges his peers about the journey that Slupianek has inspired. He contends that their excursion is not one of success, like Amundsen, but more like Ernest Shackleton who never quite made it to the final goal. He admits, in despair, "defeats are our daily bread."
Carlsen is intriguing as the frenetic Slupianek. He can go from a half-crazed rant to a tender scene in a brief second. He's the glue that holds the show tight.
Husband and wife characters, Braukmann and Luisa, portrayed by Williams and Soliman are wonderful to watch. Williams adeptly balances the world of fantasy against the real world where returning to work and listening to his wife are vitally important. Soliman is a refreshing character amidst the male dominated cast.
Burke, who plays second fiddle to Slupianek, garners attention in any scene he's in and Worthley is talented in his portrayal of a more troubled sort of man.
The characters of Rosi (Natasha Salvo) and Rudi (Hal Cohen) appear in a scene tucked in later during the show. The scene is a bit too bizarre and unsettling to be enjoyed. The actors are fine, but the dialogue is too Bertolt Brecht German theatrical style for my taste.
The set design by Craig Robinson fits perfectly in this small theater stage where you can almost feel the dust and dank in the attic setting. I'm surprised that the costumes weren't more of the LL Bean variety with the show taking place in Rumford.
This first-time venture to Snowlion Repertory Company was engaging in a theater that clearly wants to expand the horizons of performance in the Portland area and is willing to bring the unusual, daring, and rarely produced shows like The Conquest of the South Pole to area audiences.