By LOU HARRY
A tip of the (ice) cap to Portland, Oregon’s Artists Repertory Theatre, which has given E.M Lewis’ epic play “Magellanica” a worthy production, even if its cracks show. Set primarily in an isolated Antarctic research station in 1986, its five-and-a-half-hour, four-intermission scale puts it in the “event” category, attracting a lively, adventurous audience. And while it never bores, it never fully catches fire either.
Lewis’ ambitions are evident throughout as she weaves together the intimate with the global, the challenges of communication with the inability to effectively chart shifting surfaces. Traditional narrative is blended with direct address, musical moments, chapter-heading projections, some minor audience participation, and, in the end, a spiritual twist.
Each act has its own rhythm, with Lewis not afraid to juggle time or resort to borderline agitprop to make her case that we have to work together to figure out how to deal with our impact on the environment—specifically, the hole in the ozone layer that two of the scientists, one American (Sara Hennessy), one Russian (an outstanding, nuanced Michael Mendelson), are investigating.
Theirs isn’t the only research in the works, though. Penguin patterns and map making and aurora investigation are going on as well. Each member of this makeshift community has an agenda and a clear personality, but a lack of conflict doesn’t help the drama. Lewis clearly loves her characters and is cautious about their flaws.
The leader, Captain Adam Burrell, provides a strong presence thanks to Vin Shambry (whose credits include Broadway’s Rent and Miss Saigon), but his Vietnam backstory doesn’t effectively pay off. As the ill cartographer Dr. Todor Kozlek, Allen Nause, a resident artist at Artists Rep, provides needed gravitas and humanity. Edgier Dr. Morgan Halsted (the aforementioned Sara Hennessy) comes off better than the eager-to-please, bordering-on-stereotype hyper-achiever Dr. May Zhou (Barbie Wu), but why is Halsted, one of the two women, the only character to have an emotional breakdown?
The most heartfelt and powerful moment comes from John San Nicholas as maintenance guy Freddie de la Rosa, who keeps the generator going so that all of this research can occur. His late-in-the-show monologue about his various jobs—some more respectable than others—gives a quirky and refreshing shot of truth to a play that too often seems to want to tell rather than show.
All that being said, we live in a world where three-character, 90-minute plays have seemed to become the norm, which has had, pardon, a chilling effect on ambitious playwriting. Lewis, director Damaso Rodriguez, and the entire company are thinking big here. And while these true explorers may not have found what they were looking for, I’m glad to have gone on the journey with them.
Magellanica runs through Feb. 19 at Artists Repertory Theatre. For more information visit www.artistsrep.org.
(Lou Harry is an Indianapolis-based arts journalist and chair of the New Play Committee for the American Theatre Critics Association. Follow him @LouHarry)