The new Off-Broadway musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is an inventive, multi-media creation that is at times exhilarating, comical, and always imaginative. The two-person show centers on Kate, a sleep-deprived, 40-ish single woman with an infant son, a wayward father touring in a Journey cover band, and a life that both personally and professional is a mess. After posting a video to a dating site the transmission is picked up through cyberspace by the long departed Artic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Is this a hallucination or a magical, mystical connection? Or something more tangible? Nonetheless, the two embark on the adventurer’s epic journey to cross the Antarctica’s waterway’s via ship, bouncing back and forth between her Brooklyn apartment and the frigid bottom of the world. When disaster strikes the expedition, the star-crossed pair begin a battle for survival, a fight that takes on individual meaning for each, in the frigid wasteland of Antarctica.
The surreal book by the prolific Tony Award winning playwright Joe DiPietro (Memphis), is equal parts adventure, history lesson, and love story. There is a nuttiness to the story that also shows flashes of wit and humor. But the real accomplishment is how the audience is drawn into the real-life exploits of Shackleton’s 1914 voyage. DiPietro’s telling of the exploits could not be realized without the superb and finely-honed rear screen projections by set designer Alexander V. Nichols. Utilizing actual footage from the expedition, as well as other carefully culled photographs and video, he puts you in the center of the action with all its harrowing and life-threatening twists and turns. The slightly elevated set is dominated by a large keyboard apparatus and other minimal props that Director Lisa Peterson, let’s call her the third key artist of the creative triumvirate, integrates into an absorbing and enthralling adventure. She does a laudable job guiding the show from broad comedy to nerve-racking tension.
The score by Val Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, both founding members of the musical group, GrooveLily (who’s theatrical piece Striking 12 is rapturous), convey the shifting moods of the musical, using a mixture of many styles and influences, incorporating jazz, show tunes, rock and classical compositions. The songs add to the ambivalence of the characters as well as to the formidable struggles of Shackleton and his men.
The cast consists of Ms. Vigoda as Kat, a harried mother and a would-be composer of video game musical scores, as she tries to eke out a living in an unforgiving world. The actress, a bundle of energy as she bounds across the small performance space, is convincing as a woman who’s life is in disarray. She subtley, and slowly changes to a more take charge individual with the appearance of the Artic explore giving her, by the finale, a new outlook on her disconsolate life. Ms. Vigoda is also is a masterful musician. For most of the musical numbers, accompanied by her assorted high-tech equipment, she furiously lets loose on her trademark electric violin.
Wade McCollum plays Ernest Shackleton, along with a number of other characters, with self-assurance and aplomb. He, too, is an accomplished musician sometimes playing banjo or guitar alongside Ms. Vigoda. He imbues Shackleton with an optimistic, can-do spirit, which was so prevalent among British explorers at the turn of the century. The actor can be a rogue one minute, flirtatious the next, but also a leader of men. His chemistry with Ms. Vigoda feels genuine.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, reaching across space and time through June 11th.