Photo by Liz Lauren
In the sparkling, quirky, funny, and oddly beautiful musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, now in its Chicago premiere at the Porchlight Music Theatre only until June 1, Joe DiPietro conjures a strange 90-minute trip into an idiosyncratic Twilight Zone as he juxtaposes two people, both “foolish optimists” and both up against huge challenges. Shackleton was a very real polar explorer who, in 1914, traveled with 22 men to Antarctica only to find his ship trapped in the ice and eventually crushed by it. He then embarked, with a select few crew members, on a mission to make his way to a whaling station to find a rescue ship. That he not only found it but managed to rescue every one of his men months later was a miracle. While doing so, it’s safe to assume that he never communicated across spacetime with a struggling, sleep-deprived modern composer, but that is this musical’s fundamental conceit.
Though we enter Scott Davis’s set to a polar wind presented by Sound Designer Matthew R. Chase, we actually begin the action in the city with Kat, a fictional 21st Century woman who suddenly finds that her cell phone is connected via some bizarre quirk in spacetime to Shackleton himself as he embarks on what would become his most difficult and most famous journey. Kat (played by the enormously talented Elisa Carlson) is the single mother of a baby who, along with her inability to parlay her musical compositions into a steady income (and the fact that the baby’s deadbeat father is off touring with a Journey tribute band), is stuck in a cold apartment and barely able to keep them fed. She also hasn’t slept in 36 hours. If anyone needs a miracle, she’s the one, and she finds it in the person of Shackleton (Andrew Mueller, possessor of a wonderful baritone voice and preternaturally perfect comic timing), at first through Facetime and then in person.
An unusual selection for Porchlight, this two-hander begins as Kat loses what she had believed to be a steady job composing the music for a video game, making it difficult to maintain her usual cheerful optimism. The weird connection to Shackleton changes everything for her: she forgets about her own troubles in order to “assist” the famous man with his own seemingly impossible task. As played by Mueller, though, Shackleton is utterly impervious to frustration, despair, or even logic. (He’s suddenly talking to someone over a century in the future on technology that he can’t even dream of, but that fazes him as little as the journey he is on…or as time-traveling through a refrigerator.)
Don’t ask for this to make sense; it’s a fever dream, after all.
Both of these characters are, interestingly, cut from similar cloth. Kat, of course, doesn’t spend her life exploring the Antarctic, but she’s just as comfortable seeking out new frontiers of music as Shackleton is sailing to places where no human has ever been. Both have plans for what they do, but neither is afraid of improvisation. As they “travel together” through the freezing, snowy polar region, he works on doing whatever is necessary to save his mates while she invents a soundtrack for his journey. In her composition, Kat uses all sorts of modern recording equipment to enhance the sound of her electric violin: she overdubs phrases, adds layers to create a deeper, more complex sound, adds a computerized beat, and even turns her remarkable voice into another instrument. (All of this is done by Carlson on the fly; it’s an impressive accomplishment.)
Not to be outdone, Mueller also gets to strut his stuff, playing the banjo and portraying several characters beyond Shackleton including the loser boyfriend (thanks to Costume Designer Gregory Graham and Hair and Makeup Supervisor Karlika Clayborne) and whipping out several more than passable accents as we meet them all. (Most of these characters appear on a large display as Mueller acts live on video from backstage; only Shackleton and the boyfriend ever make it to the stage itself.) All this time, Smooch Medina’s projections and G. “Max” Maxim IV’s lighting show us the difficult journey our characters are undertaking. This is a technically complicated production, perfectly realized by director Michael Unger and Music Director Eric Svejcar.
That the musician and the explorer, finding solace in each other, come close to finding love across the decades as well is foreshadowed in the show’s title, but a relationship is not the point. In fact, the playwright scuttles it almost as soon as it seems to be happening (which makes sense anyway, as they’d have had a rough go at it given everything lined up against them, not the least of which is that Ernest Shackleton died in 1922). But each of these characters discovers through the other that optimism need not be foolish after all. In fact, it may be all you need to get through the difficulties life presents you with.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is a Porchlight Music Theatre production now playing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Ave., Chicago, until June 1. Tickets are available at https://porchlightmusictheatre.org.For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.