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Long Wharf's 'Endurance' explores role of leadership in daunting situations

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'Endurance' by Split Knuckle Theatre at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven

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While mashups are all the rage, especially in music, it seems to stretch credulity to imagine tying the story of Ernest Shackleton’s disaster plagued trans-Antarctic expedition in 1915 to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. But the New York-based Split Knuckle Theatre has done just that in a visually stirring and extraordinarily acted production now gracing New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II through June 29.

Greg Webster, the Artistic Director and a founding member of Split Knuckle, is a resident of New Haven and an Assistant Professor of Movement and Devised Theatre at the University of Connecticut’s actor training program. The company was invited by Long Wharf for this summer residency and this production entitled “Endurance” is a stunning example of what Split Knuckle aims to achieve on the stage. According to their press materials, “Split Knuckle creates dynamic, physical, visually striking theatre from simple materials. Through imagination, text, and movement, we create vast landscapes, vivid characters, and epic stories.”

The work of the company seems to grow from collaborations among all of its members and is intended to make a visceral connection to its audiences. “Using the expressive powers of the human voice and body,” their materials state, “we tell stories confronting the wonders and challenges of life in our world.”

Playwright Nick Ryan, who has a track record of helping companies devise theatrical works through the collaborative process, has provided sense and order to the story of Shackleton, whose ill-fated attempt to cross the entire Antarctic continent resulted in his boat, the Endurance, getting irreparably stuck in the ice. As a veteran Antarctic explorer, however, Shackleton was able to keep his men alive for over a year and a half, long after their ship was destroyed by the encroaching ice, without losing a single member prior to their eventual rescue. The Shackleton story adheres fairly close to the historical events, down to the names of some of the crew and Shackleton’s circuitous attempts to reach civilization with the onset of summer.

Similarly, Ryan has incorporated the company’s interest in incorporating the story of the recent recession into the piece. They set that aspect of the story in a fictional insurance company in Hartford, called BMI, and follow a white collar insurance grunt named Walter Spivey, who unexpectedly finds himself promoted as hundreds of others around him are laid off. His new responsibilities separate him from his former team, but he is nonetheless expected to get them to dramatically improve their efficiency and productively in processing claims even though they are now down a person.

When the company says that they are committed to using “simple materials,” they are not kidding. The entire set consists of three tables on rollers, two hat racks, a two-drawer filing cabinet, a few chairs that will apparently be sold off by the insurance giant, and three wastebaskets, which play invaluable roles. From this, the four brave actors gently but steadily help the audience to unleash its imagination, as the story flutters between the downsized, anxiety-plagued insurance office and the challenged, desperate crew eventually forced to camp directly on the Antarctic ice.

The 90-minute intermissionless work is breathtaking in the range and scope of theatrical inventiveness on display. From the early moments when three of the actors screech “Ree, Ree, Ree” to represent the hapless Spivey’s alarm clock as he lays atop one of the tables to a careful rearrangement that becomes the Endurance on a storm tossed sea, the progression of the story remains clear and easy-to-follow. Even though the cast are dressed predominantly in their white collar work garb of jackets and ties, they do don hats or scarves and slightly alter their posture to become the members of Shackleton’s crew. These changes happen so quickly at times that one is genuinely impressed, if not overall amazed, at the remarkable ability of the cast to assume a new character so quickly and seamlessly.

Webster does a tremendous job as Shackleton, assuming a commanding presence as the leader who must instill confidence and hope into his men during the intense cold and incredible boredom of the winter. Webster provides a look into the man’s busy intellect as he cleverly devises jobs and entertainments designed to keep the men occupied while exuding a sturdy confidence in his promise that no man shall be lost. He’s equally fine as Ben Brody, a cocky, cynical member of the Hartford office team who though bristling at Spivey’s new authority nonetheless remains a team player as new ideas and methodologies need to be introduced into the group.

Christopher Hirsh does tremendous work as nebbish-like Spivey, who reluctantly accepts his new role, yet almost blossoms once he finds a book called “Endurance” which outlines the leadership skills one can adopt by studying how Shackleton managed his crew over the two-plus year period. Hirsch ably depicts Spivey’s gradual growth as he willingly learns to take more and more risks as the pressures from his higher-ups grows exponentially. He also quite fine as one of Shackleton’s chief lieutenants, Wild, who provides essential support to his boss, which is essential to assuring the rest of the crew’s buy-in.

Andrew Grusetskie and Jason Bohon play two of the other office drones, with Grusetskie’s Mark constantly worrying about how he will support his ill mother should he lose his job. Bohon, who has been associated with Split Knuckle since 2009 and helped develop this production and another of the company’s works, neatly depicts his office worker, Larry’s, concern about the office’s fragile state, while alternating as a veteran seaman, with a favorite cat, who is frequently critical of some of Shackleton’s decisions yet knows his place in the naval hierarchy.

While always visually arresting and frequently exciting, “Endurance” is full of sweet and delicious humor. Most people in the audience will find it easy to relate to the office scenes, particularly as Spivey’s higher-ups, played by the three other actors with wastebaskets over their heads as they stand atop the tables, demand ever more productivity and results, while consistently removing and denying the necessary resources for these results. The collaborators either must have had personal experience with corporate America in the late aughts, as their take on the captains of industry is ruthlessly on pitch.

It’s also rewarding to see the once clueless Spivey adopt some of Shackleton’s practices, such as getting to know his staff better by asking unusual questions that reveal interests and hobbies, as well as see a genuine team be created among the contemporary workers as they are given a chance to come up with a working solution on their own. The difference between their slow-motion balletic motions transferring a piece of paper between to depict the constraining steps of their early processing system to the exuberant transfer of multiple pages once they derive a more efficient method is quite telling about the state of American business today.

It is amazing what this troupe can do with the minimal setting they have allotted themselves. The four actors can one moment be sitting in a makeshift bar and then a few seconds later be swabbing a deck at sea. Ken Clark has created a musical accompaniment that includes some plaintive piano tunes mixed with familiar orchestrations from the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s. Lucy Brown is responsible for the costumes, mixing the suits and jackets and ties of the business world with the merest suggestion of various accessories of the seafaring environment, and allowing the actors themselves to use their bodies and their voices to create the plethora of characters they will depict throughout the evening. Dan Rousseau has designed the lighting, which plays an important role in accommodating the changing scenes and, in the Shackleton scenes, creating a very real sense of the extreme cold that the explorers are facing.

Most of the sound effects for the evening are accomplished by the four cast members themselves. Whether they are imitating a heavy wind, a pounding rainstorm, a photocopying machine, or in one memorable sequence, the soft page-turning silence of the Hartford Public Library, they are impressive bunch.

At its heart, “Endurance” is a piece about the role of quality leadership in guiding others through a difficult period or time. While Shackleton and Spivey may be facing quite different situations, the Split Knuckle ensemble does demonstrate the connections and parallels between the two worlds. Yes, the Shackleton voyagers faced a life or death situation in an extremely hostile and uncertain environment. But for the Hartford insurance workers, the potential loss of their jobs seemed to be just as serious to them, and to rally them to a solution in a situation with dwindling resources over which they had little control, also required inventive and understanding leadership. Ultimately, both situations demonstrate the importance of establishing trust and working together on a peer-to-peer level, with an involved and participative leader.

That also may describe Split Knuckle themselves. In order to accomplish all that they need to do in “Endurance,” there needs to be a great deal of trust and mutual reliance. The tables and props all need to be in the right place at the right time and some acrobatic support needs to be in place so specific visual moments can be fulfilled. With their split second timing and athletically inclined performances, they succeed in their own form of endurance, which both delights and astonishes the audience.

For tickets and information about “Endurance,” contact the Long Wharf’s Box Office at 203.787.4282 or visit their website at www.longwharf.org.

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