Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
The time is now in the dead of winter (I wonder if there is a metaphor there). There is no heat in Kat's frigid Brooklyn apartment. David, her boyfriend and the father of her baby, is touring with a Journey cover band, and screwing with a roadie. Kat is being fired from her job writing music for video games. The baby is colicky and Kat hasn't slept in thirty-six hours. Composing music while blogging on her Internet dating site, Kat snaps and enters into a phantasmagoric fever dream in which she is being courted through her live blog by star crossed turn of the twentieth century American Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Initially, confined to Kat's computer screen, Shackleton, using Kat's refrigerator as his point of entry, enters Kat's kitchen. Shackleton is in the midst of his long and perilous 800-mile return journey to a remote island to rescue 23 members of his exploration team stranded there on the icy tundra when their ship sunk. Ernest convinces Kat to accompany him on his journey. Kat brings along her electric violin, and provides a banjo for Ernest. Kat's Brooklyn apartment and the icy, snowy Antarctic wilderness merge across the years as the spunky pair embark on their mission during which the brave and adventurous Ernest by word and deed revives Kat's self determination, confidence, drive, and joie de vivre.
The music and lyrics are by Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, married writing partners who comprise two thirds of the band GrooveLily. Their theatre music (they have written several musicals, some of which have been produced at the McCarter Theatre and the Paper Mill Playhouse) features electronic music with reverb, a vocal synthesizer processor, pop rock music, symphonic sounding, long lined melodies. The eclecticism of their music for Shackleton extends to sea shanties; "hootenanny," music which sounded like electronic American folk music to my ears; and the old-timey "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" fitted out with new lyrics. Not every song is distinctive or traditionally structured, but, as a whole, the score is satisfyingly eclectic, complex, lively, emotional, and theatrical. The book by Joe DiPietro is impressive in its wit, dexterity, and conciseness.
Valerie Vigoda plays Kat and Wade McCollum plays the men in Kat's life and fantasies. In addition to providing much musical accompaniment on her six-string electric guitar, Vigoda garners our sympathy and delight as Kat. Wade McCollum is a total delight putting a satiric spin on all of his characters. His Shackleton wears his heroism lightly: as the Ponce de Leon of Kat's dreams, he cuts a fine foppish image. As David, Kat's philandering boyfriend who comes in off the road to reclaim Kat, his sense of entitlement simply because he is male is riotous in its tone deafness.
Someone had the thought that the use of profanity (Kat introduces Ernest to the joy of saying "motherfucker") in the text was pandering titillation for younger adult viewers. Yes, it could help a bit in placing the artistic Kat in the counterculture, but doesn't it detract more than it adds to the larkish fun nature of this piece? Anyway, rather than having him dismissed as an old fogy, I told that someone to forget about it and just finish writing this review.
Director Lisa Peterson has done a sensational job aided by production designer Alex Nichols. The rear of the stage is fronted by two sets of screens which feature digital projections which expand every aspect of Shackleton. Initially, there are projections of digital designs and Kat's computer screen which give way to evocative historic photographs of Ernest Shackleton and his crew's exploration of the Antarctic along with Shackleton's rescue of those who were trapped there in 1915. Additionally, there are maps, and black and white, digital films showing the atmospheric conditions which Shackleton faced. Add in the passionate music, and Ernest Shackleton Loves Me becomes an impressively sizable entertainment.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me continues performance (Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8 PM (except 5/14); Sunday 7 PM/ Matinees: Thursday (except 5/7), Saturday and Sunday 2 PM) through May 17, 2015, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online: www.GSPonline.org.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me Book by Joe DiPietro; Music by Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn; directed by Lisa Peterson