Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Terra Nova
A Tale of Epic Failure
The Vortex Theatre

Review by Wally Gordon

Also see Stephanie's recent review of The Graduate


Brennan Foster and Malcolm June
Photo by Christy Lopez
Ted Tally's play Terra Nova was first performed in 1977, two years after America's greatest failure, the Vietnam war, for a nation and a time that had no heroes. He was writing about a different kind of hero whose heroism stemmed from what one director has called an "epic failure." Antarctic explorer Capt. Robert Scott was in fact a double failure, having first failed to win the race to the South Pole and then having failed to save the lives of himself and his men. Yet on the cusp of World War I, Britain's greatest catastrophe, the English adopted, lionized and memorialized Scott as a romantic hero traduced by fate. Thus, Tally's tale of Scott's tragic mission and agonizing death can be viewed as a kind of anti-heroic love letter from one failed nation to another, one failed generation to another.

"You treat your dogs like gentlemen," Scott's rival, the far more successful Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, says, "and your gentlemen like dogs." A sentence that is repeated twice in the play, it s not just a throwaway line, for Scott failed in part because he and his four followers insisted on dragging a thousand-pound sled 800 miles across snow and ice, while Amundsen chose to use sled dogs (and got to the South Pole first). Scott argued that it was ignoble to use dogs to do such painful drudgery—"I leave you to decide if it is sporting," Scott says. (Yet two years after the play was written it was discovered that Scott had left a written order for a team of men on dog sleds to meet him with fresh supplies. Why would it be more ethical to use dogs on one sled than on another? It is one of those unresolvable mysteries that surround the entirely avoidable deaths of Scott and all his party.)

A new production at The Vortex Theatre brings the agony and ecstasy of these men to the Albuquerque stage in a performance that is at once thought provoking and powerfully emotional. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Vortex maintains its reputation for staging complex stories with professional panache.

The only record of the struggle of the five men is the diary of Scott. Although he was a professional military man with a limited education, the diary is beautifully written, with eloquent passages describing otherworldly vistas and the joy and ultimate despair of the five men traipsing through them—"things I have seen terrible and wonderful." Later he writes, "We march in silence because any sound we'd make is a scream of despair."

Scott himself is the harshest judge of his failure. "We should have succeeded," he wrote, adding, "Only we English could so believe in an idea." His concluding message to the world is this: "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale." That they do.

The action on stage combines scenes of the expedition with Scott's memories of his his wife Kathleen (Jen Stephenson) and imagined conversations with his nemesis Amundsen (Malcolm June). Brennan Foster as Scott owns the stage, as the explorer owned the expedition, and Foster does a fine job of integrating the fantasy scenes in a way that reflects the gradual decline of Scott from a commanding figure to a lonely man who is lost as much in madness as in the Antarctic. "This is an awful place," Scott says near the end. "I am sick of playing God."

Amundsen comes across as an interesting character, somewhat slimy, quite cynical, but also a symbol of pragmatism as a foil to Scott's idealism. "I must apologize for common sense," he says. He tells Scott, "You're the most dangerous kind of decent man." When Scott accuses Amundsen of lying when he said he was going to explore the North Pole rather than Antarctica, the Norwegian replies, "It wasn't a lie, i meant it as long as it was convenient." A number of contemporary politicians could sympathize.

Shawn Boyd, Yannig Morin, Thane Kenny, and Vincent Kirby do convincing jobs of depicting Scott's loyal gang of doomed followers, gracefully handling the British accents as well as the emotional conflict of forced optimism and private fear. Set designer Mary Rossman has captured the Antarctic's paradox of desolation and beauty. The play has the unusual distinction of being directed by a partnership, but co-directors Aaron Worley and Mark Hisler have collaborated seamlessly.

A year and a half after Scott's diary was found next to his frozen corpse in February 1913, months after some 30 memorials were built to him across Britain and hundreds of paeans were published to his romantic valor, hundreds of thousands of the captain's colleagues marched off to a war from which they and their country never recovered. A previous director of Terra Nova, Annie Baillie, wrote this perceptive comment on the enduring passion of the Scott tragedy:

"If Scott had reached the South Pole first and returned to England fit and smiling he would soon have been forgotten by most of the English. It was his death that made him famous ... It takes on a poetic quality which haunts the mind like a myth, its pointless futility remaining Romantic ideal long after the carnage of the trenches has been recognized as an obscene squandering of human life. The long silence; the sudden tragic news; the Idea of Scott and his companions doomed to the remote, howling wilderness of snow and ice—all of that still lived in the common mind after the war, and has done ever since."

Terra Nova continues through April 17, 2016, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE in Albuquerque. For information and tickets call 505-247-8600 or go to vortexabq.org/.


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