Keeping Afloat

Review of Split Knuckle Theatre's Endurance When is a Hartford insurance company like a ship stuck in ice in the Antarctic? When they’re both sinking.

Split Knuckle Theatre’s Endurance parallels the travails of erstwhile Walter Spivey (Christopher Hirsh), as he rises from the ranks to take over a drowning insurance claims department, with the voyage of Ernest Shackleton to the South Pole aboard the Endurance, a ship that floundered, then sank, causing the expedition to spend months aboard an ice floe before finally making landfall on a desolate island. In other words, even when your ass is out of the fire, it may still be in the frying pan. That’s the lesson for Spivey as well, as he meets with setbacks, triumphs, and setbacks, all while trying to apply the lessons Shackleton set down in a little book about managing men in unpropitious circumstances.

One of the best aspects of this show’s endlessly inventive staging is the miming or enacting of routine, from rising in the morning to the bus ride and the elevator klatsch to the “assembly line” of the claim division, and the ways in which the small troupe of four play a multitude of roles and voices—a particularly fun moment occurs when Walter journeys to the Hartford library (“no late fees, Walter,” sounding in his head as the command of the higher-ups) and every book glanced into offers its advice in a succession of voices. At that point Walter finds inspiration in Shackleton’s account of how he weathered—without losing a man—the grueling navigation from ice floe to island. The upshot is that what serves in one dire circumstance may well serve in another: for Shackleton the necessary factor is optimism as a moral force.

We see abundant evidence of Shackleton’s sense of optimism—the explorer is played with can-do-or-die pluck by Greg Webster—but it mainly amounts to having the men sing. Indeed, one of the questions Shackleton poses to his prospective crew members is “can you sing?” The songs are authentic-sounding and lively but they don’t go a long way to differentiate the crewmen, though we can easily spot the pessimist of the bunch. Andrew Grusetskie plays him with a sort of hangdog ruefulness and also puts in a good turn as Mark, the ailing elder of the insurance group who finds serenity, to a scary degree, in organization.

As Spivey, Hirsh makes the most of the kinds of nebbishy twitches that put me in mind of Monty Python’s Terry Jones enacting a straight arrow. Then there’s Jason Bohon as Larry, the mama’s boy who knows what’s what about computers, and, finally Greg Webster as Ben Brody, the loose cannon. When he sets about to learn something about his “men” as Shackleton advises, Spivey uncovers little bits of individuality in each—for Brody, it’s the fact that there was a good priest back there somewhere who taught the boy the “Ave Maria.” When all is dark and you’ ve got to sing, you could do worse.

As a way to buoy spirits in a desolate landscape with small hope of survival, Shackleton’s methods make sense. And we might reflect on how “knowing the song” is tantamount to being “one of the crew”—thus making an apt figure for the very notion of “banding together.” But in the modern-day office? That’s where the hopes of Endurance start to seem a bit wishful, even as we much credit the Split Knuckle team for their grasp of the rigors of a day in the life. Any breakthrough must make the right mark on the balance sheet and Spivey and his team could be cast adrift at any time. Shackleton, you see, was master and commander of his vessel, answerable to none but the Almighty. Spivey and his group are answerable, at last, to the almighty buck.

The parallel between these perilous journeys may break down a bit, but the imaginative physical theater of this four man troupe—new to New Haven—never does, creating a fun and varied theatrical experience.


Split Knuckle Theatre Endurance

Jason Bohon: Larry, Orde-Lees, etc.; Andrew Grusetskie: Mark Mercier, etc.; Christopher Hirsh: Walter Spivey, etc.; Greg Webster: Shackleton/Ben Brody

Playwright: Nick Ryan; Costume Designer: Lucy Brown; Lighting Designer: Dan Rousseau; Music: Ken Clark; Dramaturg: Dassia Posner; Stage Manager: Carmen A. Torres

Long Wharf Theatre June 17-29, 2014