Sunday, March 24, 2013

Theatre review: "Antarktikos" at The Rep

The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse offers a world premiere of a play revolving around world famous history about 100 years ago, the story of ill-fated explorer Robert Falcon Scott who died near the South Pole in March 1912. Andrea Stolowitz writes about that in Antarktikos, using an ancient Greek name for that forbidding territory. She explores more but dwells much on Scott’s history while calling attention to present living conditions beneath the frozen surface. She keeps those subjects constantly fascinating but her intelligent creation, despite many admirable qualities, most looks like a device to tell us about Scott and life and death in that port of the world. She constructs a tale about a slightly dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship and how it thaws in a contemporary, life-threatening situation. Stolowitz has come up with an intellectually creative construction, full of interesting details, but emotional involvement never breaks through to warm us. This character study doesn’t get deep enough.

Director Sheila McKenna gets fine, believable performances from her four person cast in the uninterrupted hour and three-quarters. Tony Bingham stands out superbly as Scott giving the man truthful and modest fragility, a portrait which seems justified by what Stolowitz tells us about Scott and what history also says.

The play is a time and place traverser, in which delusions feel real to Susan, a writer, who, as it turns out, is on hospital life-support after a serious bicycle accident. Thus the audience is thrust into what seems her sentient time on earth visiting today’s Antarctica where she encounters a medical technician, Alex, checking on her ability to physically survive the experience. Actually, in real life he helped her survive the accident. Meanwhile, in Susan’s dream time, she is alone with Scott in his isolated, storm-swept tent. Scott is puzzled about how this has happened while Susan tells him of his resurrection as a dead hero.  North of there in the here and now, her somewhat estranged daughter Hilary arrives at the hospital where a relationship evolves between her and Alex.

Stolowitz’s scenes between Scott and Susan show much imagination, but the hospital room parts of the play don’t go very far until the conclusion. And the beginning, with Susan telling about herself and about the threat to human life in the Antarctic goes on quite long, seeming, at best,  like interesting talk. This part of the script would improve with trimming. There are other times when talk takes precedence over action, as if congealed into immobility.

As Susan, Alex and Hilary, Amy Landis, Billy Hepfinger and Morgan Wolk do admirably in giving their characters much believability while director McKenna shapes the performances and stages the actions dynamically.

If Stolowitz wanted to write about the Antarctic and about Scott as much as she seems to, especially given the title, a better choice would have been to go further in that direction. But, according to the program notes, she had other intentions which are expressed in Susan and Hilary’s story.  You can see how these elements might come together but, in this instance, more needs to be done.

Antarktikos continues through April 7th  in the Studio Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, on Craft Avenue, Oakland-412/392-8000, or online at  

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