Split Knuckle Theatre

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

Split Knuckle Theatre's Connecticut Debut at Long Wharf

An acclaimed theatrical group is relocating to New Haven. Split Knuckle Theatre, founded in London in 2005, will be performing their new show Endurance at the Long Wharf Theatre, June 17-29. According to Greg Webster, one of the founding members and a professor of Movement Theater at UConn in Storrs, the group was formed mainly by American students abroad in England at the London International School of Performing Arts in 2005. Their intention from the start was “to combine activity with complex ideas,” with all members of the troupe “rooted in acting as physical bodywork.” Webster likens the group to the same tradition as Rude Mechs of Texas, where theatrical space is part of the show, with unlikely objects and props put into service, as opposed to the kind of “kitchen naturalism” that is still the basis of most regional theater.

Endurance came about, Webster says, when the group was trying to come up with a new project and he found himself channel-surfing one night and stumbled on what he describes as an excellent BBC documentary on the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1914. Somehow—let’s call it creative ferment—Webster’s impressions of the documentary got mixed with a dream in which an office worker was being attacked by a Xerox machine. Add to the mix the fact that the Split Knuckle show was being developed during the nose-diving economy of 2007-08, with such memorable events as the federal bail-out of AIG and Fannie and Freddie Mac, and you’ve got the makings of a show that treats reality in a rather cavalier fashion as it works between two settings at once: an office where Walter Spivey must rally his troops to survive the blood-letting taking place in a Hartford insurance firm, and the exploratory voyage of Shackleton who, with his ship, appropriately named Endurance, floundering in ice, must keep his crew alive and optimistic—for two years. For Webster, that’s the takeaway: as Shackleton himself said, “we must always remember that optimism is true moral courage.” The play attempts to bring that insight to bear on the everyday workplace to show that it’s true of any endeavor; not only death-defying situations, but wherever the task is to “weather the crisis.”

Webster says that the play moves with the speed of something like The 39 Steps, and all the shifts in scene are done with a collection of objects used as props to suggest the different settings. Trained in the influential methods of Jacques Lecoq, a master of physical theater, Split Knuckle has played in 19 different countries and, though Webster lives now in New Haven and the troupe has become based here, this is its first time staging a show in CT. At a conference trade show, Long Wharf’s PR man Steve Scarpa took an interest in the Split Knuckle’s presentation and went to Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, with the result that the show has been brought home, so to speak.

Webster says the name “split knuckle” came from a literal split knuckle he endured during a period when his frustration with theater—don’t get him started on open calls—caused him to punch a door and injure his hand. Out of that frustration came the desire to work with actors who would be in control of the entire venture, rather than lining up at 5 a.m. for “cattle calls” with a host of others all matching the same character description. Rehearsal for the group, Webster says, is “fooling around” to find what works, and likens the troupe’s dynamic to being in a jazz ensemble, albeit one in which every musician can play, potentially, every instrument. The intention is always “organic collaboration” with no “methodology of hierarchy” where one voice dominates or overrides others. Once the piece has evolved into its form, it’s fixed and “runs like a clock, precise and beautiful.” Though it may still appear somewhat improvisational to an audience seeing it for the first time, it has, by then, already shown itself sea-worthy.

Why Shackleton, an explorer often forgotten by history buffs who tend to remember the heroic stories of someone like Scott who lost his entire expedition? For Webster, Shackleton is important because he gave up on his goal of reaching the pole in 1909 when it became clear he couldn’t achieve it without the loss of life. Other explorers were willing to suffer casualties to achieve success; Shackleton’s “no man left behind” ethos might well be a kind of heroism more meaningful in a time when the wounds of employee attrition are still smarting.

Split Knuckle Theatre’s Endurance promises an evening of lively, physically inventive, and entertaining theater, bridging different times and situations—each dire in its own way—to explore the inspiring themes of survival and sacrifice.


Split Knuckle Theatre Endurance

Devised by Jason Bohon, Andrew Grusetskie, Michael Toomey, and Greg Webster, with Nick Ryan, collaborating writer; Ken Clark, musical composition; Dan Rousseau, lighting; Carmen Torres, stage manager

The Long Wharf Theatre Stage II June 17-29