Theater Review: “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” – Musically Engaging But Dramatically Weak

This show’s rousingly eclectic score is considerably more progressive than what is typical of our determinedly conservative modern musical theater genre.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. Lyrics by Valerie Vigoda. Music by Brendan Milburn. Book by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Emerson Paramount Center, Boston, MA, through October 4.

Photo: Jeff Carpenter

Val Vigoda in ArtsEmerson’s presentation of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.” Photo: Jeff Carpenter.

By Ian Thal

Kat (Valerie Vigoda) mills about her Brooklyn apartment clad in a parka. Her loutish boyfriend months ago left to tour with a Journey cover band, leaving her to pay the rent and support their infant son, who sleeps in the one warm room. She is ready to move on emotionally and, in the midst of a thirty-six hour stint of sleep depression, posts a profile video to the dating website, Cupid’ In her opening song, Kat explains that she is a composer “adventurous and bold,” “groundbreaking” and “inventive,” but her operas aren’t even appreciated by the five or six people who bother to attend her concerts (they all leave during intermission). So she sells out and accepts a commission to compose the music for a video game called “Star Blazers” (presumingly a nod to the anime series). She has contempt for the “little wankers” and “nose-picking stupid-ass boys” she imagines plays the game. But it turns out that in the beta test her music is their favorite part of the experience.

Still, the project manager on “Star Blazers” calls to tell her that she and her music have been dropped. But her consolation, as she drifts into a sleep-deprived hallucination, is a dream in which her dating profile attracts such great explorers as Ponce de León, Jacques Cousteau, and Sir Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum). Kat’s music wins the heart of Shackleton and his men; Shackleton wins hers. Soon, over telephone and Skype, Kat accompanies Shackleton on his failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17. And she begins to compose an opera narrating the voyage.

Shackleton’s plans were to sail to Antartica and then travel by sled with his crew to the South Pole and rendezvous with the ship on the other side of the continent. Instead, their ship, The Endurance, was trapped for several months in an ice floe, eventually being crushed. The crew managed to sail to Elephant Island in three salvaged life boats. Then Shackleton and a small band, in one of the boats, the James Caird, sailed 720 nautical miles to a whaling station on South Georgia Island in order to get help. The crew returned to England, having missed most of World War I.

This touring production of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is billed as “A Sea Shanty to Inspire Us All.” Often bawdy, sometimes clever, shanties were not about inspiration. They synchronized the movement and breathing of a ship’s crew in any activity that required a group effort, such as raising anchor, or adjusting sails: they were work songs. Shanties were eliminated after shipboard live became mechanized, but the surviving repertoire is prized by folklorists.

Vigoda, who also served as lyricist, and her composer and husband Brendan Milburn (the couple are two-thirds of the progressive power-pop band, GrooveLily) have put together an eclectic body of songs that span genre, including the shanty “With a Hey and a Ho, and Away We Go,” a new version of the English music-hall hit of WWI, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and new compositions with prog-rock stylings, especially the songs Kat composes for her opera. The result is considerably more progressive than what is typical of our determinedly conservative modern musical theater genre. Milburn’s orchestrations are often gorgeous, but their busyness occasionally drown out Vigoda’s violin playing. Though she plays a number of instruments during the show, it’s on her two six-string electric violins that she shows her true prowess.

Vigoda and McCollum are charismatic performers, displaying an effective sense of physicality on stage. This comes in handy because they have to carry the entire show. Vigoda has a lovely voice, a natural for when it comes to delivering pop with rock star attitude, yet with the precision necessary for the chamber-rock arrangements of her main band. McCollum is impressive both in his baritone and falsetto range, and the clipped accent he gives Shackleton’s hard consonants zips up the score considerably.

Chelsea Cook’s costumes are convincing, both for the twentieth century Shackleton and his sixteenth century rival Ponce de León (complete with hose and codpiece). Alex Nichols makes good use of archival film and photographs to project Shackleton’s voyage, though the animations for the dating site and “Star Blazers” sequences seem haphazard (the prominent use of the early ’80s arcade game, Tempest, comes off as a non-sequitur). Nichols’ set is made up of risers covered with dustings of fake snow. A door on stage left and a refrigerator and stove on stage right are the only suggestions that the setting is an unusually spacious Brooklyn apartment. A sterile gray work table and large video projection screen seem more appropriate for the offices of a multi-media start-up than the “dump” that Kat describes she lives in

Where Ernest Shackleton Loves Me falters is in its lack of real drama. Vigoda, Milburn, and their collaborator, Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book, have chosen optimism as their theme, which inevitably means smoothing out rough edges in the historical record. Vigoda’s lyrics and DiPietro’s script minimize the physical hardships and moral tribulations generated by the expedition. For example, here’s some humor about seal blubber not being particularly tasty, but no mention of ever killing seals. There’s a brief scene that acknowledges the necessity of slaughtering the sled dogs and puppies when food was in short supply, but no time is spent on the emotional impact it had on the men who did the deed. The historical Shackleton memorialized the names of the dogs in his memoirs. Vigoda and DiPietro give no more than the most superficial hints that Shackleton had any attachments to his men – not one is named. While most of the crew survived in the end, the three who died are never mentioned in the show, so this Shackleton never has reason to mourn. Instead, our protagonists have their predictable and momentary third act crisis of confidence, and push through the difficulty after only the briefest of pep-talks. Is it any wonder that Kat’s ex plays in a Journey cover-band, and that he quotes their inoffensively mediocre anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’”?

The historical details in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me meet the minimum requirements for educational programing aimed at a pre-teen and middle-school audience. In fact, DiPietro’s dialogue often has Kat making use of the simple questions and declarative statements of the host of a children’s television show eliciting information from an over-the-top historical re-enactor. Yet, Kat’s use of f-bombs and other mild expletives prevent the production from being labeled family-friendly.

The result is anodyne characterization. Shackleton is brave and and when faced with impossible odds, his self-confidence does not flag for long – outside of occasional swigs from a flask, he embodies squeaky-clean machismo. Likewise there are missed opportunities to give Kat some edginess. When she is fired from the development team of “Star Blazers” she is told that she was hard to get along with – but neither song nor dialogue reveals a prickly personality (yes, she yells at her boss, but only after she’s been fired and told that she isn’t getting paid for her work).

For that matter, in terms of social relevance, it is disappointing, in the wake of “Gamergate,” that neither Vigoda nor DiPietro explore the possibility that Kat was fired due to sexism in the video game industry. Gamergate revealed to the public that many industry insiders and consumers are indifferent to misogyny, and openly hostile to those who blow the whistle. Is musical theater so dissimilar? Of course, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me was originally commissioned in 2009 – but it’s been revised in a series of development workshops, at least as recently as 2014, the year Gamergate broke.

Earlier this year, in the Paramount Center’s smaller Jackie Libergott Black Box space, the Poets’ Theater premiered Matthew Sprangler and Benjamin Evett’s Albatross, another tale of a failed Antarctic Expedition. Aside from the entertainment value of its robust score, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me pales in comparison, lacking the latter’s richness of characterization and language, imaginative design, and even breadth of historical research. Albatross draws on its source material, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, dramatizing how its protagonist passes — via mystical epiphany — from despair and nihilism to tragicomic redemption. In contrast, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me offers only trite truisms about the power of hope, forgetting that optimism shines most convincingly in the darkness.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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