Skylight’s ‘Shackleton’ Is a Wild One

Elusive, fascinating, hypnotic musical with terrific performances. It will linger in your mind.

By - Jan 25th, 2022 12:07 pm

Janice Martin (Kat) in rehearsal for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. Photo by Mark Frohna.

The audience was meeting in the gorgeous operetta-friendly Cabot Theatre for the Skylight’s rare production of a little known off-Broadway limited success, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.  Turns out to be an elusive but fascinating and hypnotic theater piece with electronic music, a musical style bordering on opera without one tune to hum afterward, requiring two exceptionally talented performers and a reverberating synthesizer sound performed live while bubbling up in computerized visual space under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik. So much for the old staid Skylight!

Explaining the show to readers in traditional fashion is nigh impossible because its love affair clashes together a famously legendary Antarctica explorer from 1914, Ernest Shackleton, with a 21st Century Cyndi Lauper-style unmarried mom and impoverished electric violinist/vocoder master, Kat, who composes music and outlandish echo effects for video games.

The book by Joe DePietro is serviceable but not as dynamic as other elements. Such as the lyrics by Val Vigoda who performed the role of Kat in the original and borrows many details from Shackleton’s extraordinary, months-long numbing trek to rescue his men from a prison of ice (a tale that has its own fascination). In telling the story, Vigoda creates rhymes that are both pedestrian and inventive (rhyming “millions” with composer John “Williams” certainly sounds like something composer Kat would come up with).

Then there’s the cross-generation music of Brendan Milburn, a startling mix of old-time country fiddling and modern bowing, sea chanteys and long sonorous violin and vocal extensions and echoing harmonies – all attuned to the feeling we are lost in time and space.

The story suggests unlikely equality in love and perseverance in the struggles of each main character to survive an unforgiving world. Nature is violently unforgiving for Shackleton and more routinely crushing in terms of modern expectations for Kat, whose roadie mate has left her, whose baby is constantly squalling and whose boss is dismissive in rejecting her music. Those selfish male roles are played by the same expert at dialects and personality who plays the noble knight-like Shackleton, Matt Daniels. In a memorable physical and emotional performance, the imposing Daniels also sings in a tenor approaching falsetto along with sudden bursts of power that do credit to Milburn’s music.

But doing even more credit is Janice Martin, an electric violinist, singer, and movement expert as Kat. She constantly has to fiddle mightily while singing lustily. Her manner is impeccable even if her acting is not quite up to Daniels’ flexibility. There are a few musical passages that go on too long, but not many.

Michael Unger, the Skylight artistic director, gave an opening speech  pointing out that his company is the only one in the US given the rights to do this show – but he is too modest to point out that the expertise needed is also rare. There are never likely to be open auditions for Kat, who must play the electric violin, manipulate the software, perform physical maneuvers and constantly hook herself up to acoustic equipment while performing – even juggling a baby (a make-believe baby but treated as real).

And to be fair, not many theaters have a director who can so adroitly handle such musical fantasies as Ponasik. As an associate she has brought something ethereally different to the Skylight every time she is asked.  Frankly I doubted it would happen this time since the concept is so far out there in whimsical fancy.

But she anchors it — finding a larger figurative significance to the event,  mixing everyday mundane aspects into what could have been inaccessible artifice, and then driving through a provocative story structure.

Music director Eric Svejcar is also vital. He is the sole orchestrator (visible to the first rows of the patrons through a balcony monitor if they twist around) though the performers have specific duties.  Scenic designer Scott Davis has imagined an apartment space that becomes a window to a world of projections. Jason Fassl’s lighting triggers attention to where the eye is needed. Karin Simonson Kopischke’s costumes provide amusing details in character development. The vertical television-like screen (where the male characters often live and in which the scenery expands) seems part of the job of video designer Patrick W. Lord.

But Ponasik has kept us and all of them focused on the individuality of the two performers and the central message, no small feat in such a complicated techno world. She can’t control where the snowflakes blow across the stage, but just about everything else has been anticipated.

The story takes place in a no man’s land from South Georgia Island to  Elephant Island (landmarks and song names in Shackleton’s struggles to find open water), yet all also takes place in Kat’s apartment where a box becomes a sea trunk and a sleigh, a ladder becomes a mountain and a Frigidaire contains surprises, even a banjo. All this in a jumble of computers

The production might sound inaccessible. Rather it is eminently timely. The show may even be the needed bolt of optimistic endurance we need while emerging from COVID-19. In our current confusing time frame, the whimsical meld and mental acrobatics seem quite fitting, though written in 2017 to justify the importance of computer programmed performers.

The concluding message – endurance conquers all – has a lot of dime novel in it. And the concept that a conjured-up expeditioner like Shackleton is somehow comparable in heroics to what a modern mother goes through – well, the mind reels and resists. But the images! The way it unfolds! The production, running through Feb. 6, lasts in the air of memory longer than the final lesson justifies — longer than we had any right to expect.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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One thought on “Theater: Skylight’s ‘Shackleton’ Is a Wild One”

  1. Gerald DeMers says:

    My wife and I saw it on Saturday and it was fantastic! As Mr. Shackleton says, “when things look hopeless, change your goals!” He did, in an inspiring way.

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