The setting is the most intriguing character in Mat Smart's new play.
In media appearances leading up to the release of the Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd comedy They Came Together, director David Wain jokingly bemoaned his least favorite trope in art: labeling places and concepts as “characters,” a platitude offered up in or about most everything taking place in New Orleans, Paris or New York.
I confess that I felt at odds, then, in the hours after leaving The Royal Society of Antarctica, the first of three world premieres to debut this season at the Gift Theatre, about how to describe what about it stuck with me so heavily.
More so than any of the breathing folks, whose love lives are less engaging than playwright Mat Smart would have you think, I was utterly taken by the secluded, rebel-filled icy universe at the end of the world in which the play takes place. Oh, I’ll just put it out there: McMurdo Station in Antarctica is the richest, most fascinating character I’ve seen on stage this year.
Dee (Aila Peck), one of the handful of people ever born on the continent, arrives at McMurdo to join her parents’ old coworkers as a janitor—a job that Smart himself took on for three months, which served as inspiration.
The details are vague, but as an infant, an unsolved tragedy results in her mother’s death and, as hinted at in a series of phone calls, her father’s decline in stability. In Dee’s mind, her new position is a homecoming, one whose motivations and judgement are questioned by the caring but guarded Pam (Lynda Newton).
It’s more welcomed, on the other hand, by UT Tim (Jay Worthington), a gung-ho camp counselor-type, UT Tom (Paul D'Addario), a station veteran, and Tamara (Brittany Burch), a food tech who just wants another soul to confide in. Behind the love triangles, existential crises and excavations into the past, a question always underscores each character’s actions: Why in god’s name would anyone remove themselves from a warm, protein-and-dairy rich society to live in the harshest place on Earth?
Adventure, colleagues, money, habit, curiosity—they all play a factor. One of the most poignant articulations, though, comes during a monologue captivatingly rendered by Newton: The sounds, energy and stacks upon stacks of luxuries back in the mainland feel so…excessive. United by preservation, research and collective-living edicts, the tiny village—lack of internet, dated music cds, old arcade tabletops and all—feels like a sanctuary.
In John Gawlik’s production, that's reflected in every aspect, from the nuanced character work to the sometimes breathtaking—in one poetic moment from Peck, a literal kind of exhilarating, frigid-air-in-the-lungs sort of breath—landscapes. It's no surprise by now that the Gift Theatre's tiny space can be host to epic, novel-like stories, and the feel is just right here, from the otherworldly, frozen-in-time rec rooms and bunkbeds to the sprawling penguin filled outdoors.
There are few theatres where you're in better hands investing three hours than the Gift, but some of Smart's peskier trappings—his style of romantic comedy is hit-or-miss—hardly justify the excess. The worst case is a running gag involving an old-timer named Ace (John Kelly Connolly, whose careful performance downplays the grossness), whose sitcom-style mission of boning someone born on every continent leads to borderline workplace harassment as comedy.
Maybe Smart was going for something there; as think pieces about the isolated blue-collar boomtowns in oil-rich North Dakota have pointed out, the gender dynamics of cut-off labor societies leads to problems when it comes to sex and relationships. The treatment here, though—along with lots of other lovelorn wheel-spinning—seems only like a relatively cheap distraction compared to the bigger story.
Once you get away from the minutiae, though, you start to appreciate what Smart and the other adventurers who've made a similar journey find so romantic about such a desolate place: Where a globalized and digitally-connected world has killed off or integrated so many once-unique cultural pockets, Antarctica and the passionate expats who live there endure.
The Gift Theatre. By Mat Smart. Directed by John Gawlik. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs; two intermissions.