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A CurtainUp Review
ICE ISLAND: The Wait For Shackleton

When Sir Ernest Shackelton embarked on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition he hoped to be remembered as the first to cross the Antarctic continent. While the expedition failed to achieve its goal it has taken its place in the history of antarctic exploration as an epic of heroic perseverance in the face of impossible odds.

In 1914 Shackleton, who had come within 100 miles of being the first man to reach the South Pole in 1909, set sail on a ship aptly named Endurance. His goal was to nab one of exploration's last prizes: the crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. But his boat never made its intended harbor. Instead, it got stuck in ice in the Weddell Sea, buffeted by 200-mile-per-hour winds and 100-degree-below-zero temperatures.

What followed was a two-tiered saga of courage and determination. After months of imprisonment on the doomed ship the 28 men managed to navigate their way to a remote slip of land known as Elephant Island. Then, in what seemed like a foolhardy enterprise, Shackleton and 5 crew members set forth in an open life boat to reach South Georgia Island and return to rescue the 22 men left behind. This precarious 800-mile voyage is one part of the story; the remaining men's perseverance through four months with rations for less than half that time is another.

The recent high profile exhibition, "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition", at the Museum of Natural History and an accompanying book chockablock full of photos by one of the expedition's key participants, Frank Hurley, managed to capture the concurrent drama of the rescue-bound crew in the open boat and the larger group hanging on at Elephant Island. It also rekindled the fire of public interest.

It would seem that a dramatized version would be possible only in a film which could cross-cut from one group to another (Hollywood has already hired Wolfgang Peterson who made Das Boot to do just that). And yet, playwright Marjorie Duffield has borrowed a page from Sir Ernest's can-do optimism, and written a play which, while decidedly low-tech, does convey the whole saga. Instead of attempting to follow Shackleton and his small group to the high seas, she focuses on the drama of the those awaiting his return -- and so the title and it's explanatory tagline.

The result is less an adventure story than a tone poem and a psychological group portrait of men under extreme duress. For a while the seven members of the cast assume various roles as they narrate the events leading up to the aborted voyage and the appointment of Frank Wild, the ship's second in command, to take charge while Shackleton embarked on the rescue mission. While bits and pieces of direct action are interspersed into this narrative segment, and this story telling device does efficiently set the scene for "the wait for Shackleton", the lineup of actors reciting events does start things off with something of a talking heads feeling that seems counter to the high drama of the circumstances. Still, what is lacking in terms of conveying a true sense of the men's bone chilling discomfort is offset by many forceful moments: the use of the narrators as a chorus of dogs and crows, the camaraderie and the play-within-a-play (Hamlet, what else?) which serves first as a distraction and eventually as the means for dealing with the ultimate desperate act of survival

Once freed from the constraints of the presentational narration, the actors all do commendable work in fleshing out their main roles. Bostin Christopher adds some welcome touches of humor as Charles Green, the cook who mourns having to leave behind his "beautiful parsley knives" when the sinking ship forces everyone to head for land with only a few essentials. Ramòn de Ocampo is particularly touching as the young stowaway who nobly insists on falling victim to the sword in the final Hamlet-Laertes duel.

Under the direction of Lori Steinberg, who has previously proved her resourcefulness in working within limited budget confines, the play has been given a handsome staging. The production is considerably enhanced by Greg Pliska's original and highly evocative musical score and the double bass playing by Mark Wade.

The fact that the man who set this expedition in motion is a major character in absentia will disappoint people who have been caught up in what the Wall Street Journal referred to as "Shackleton fever" prior to the Museum of Natural History exhibit. On the other hand, anyone interested in his story and the Endurance epic will want to see this new dramatic rendering of the day to day details of how these men survive their icy ordeal.

After meeting Frank Hurley (Christopher Burns) on stage, you may also wish to invest in a copy of the best-selling book with its remarkable reproductions of his photos. There are several other books documeting these profiles in courage -- all in print, with links for on line purchase listed below for your convenience.

The Endurance : Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander, Frank Hurley (Photographer). . . paperback edition Orders taken now for February availability.

South : A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage by Ernest Henry Shackleton, Sir Ernest Shackleton -- the journal and main source of above best seller.

Endurance : An Epic of Polar Adventure by Frank Arthur Worsley, Shackleton's Captain.

Shackleton, a highly esteemed biography by Roland Huntford

ICE ISLAND: The Wait For Shackleton
by Marjorie Duffield
Directed by Lori Steinberg
With: Christopher Bums, Bostin Christopher, Ramon de Ocampo, Michael Medeiros, Charles McIver, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., and Lou Sumrall
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Lighting Design: Debra Dumas
Costume Design: Sue Gandy
Original music: Greg Pliska
Running time: 1 hour and 10 minutes without intermission
Melting Pot Theatre, 311 W. 43rd St. ((8th/9th Avs), 279-4200
11/07/99-12/19/99; opening 11/14/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/14/99 performance

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