Perseverance, but little nuance, in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

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Yesterday evening, I went to see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a new and inventive musical that has been nominated for Best New Musical for the 2017 Off Broadway Alliance Awards. I’ve included some initial thoughts in the paragraphs below, but I have much more to say about the production—I had a lot of fun watching the show and admired many aspects of it, but ultimately I felt that its thematic simplicity held it back.

Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum bring talent and spirit to Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, which bills itself as “an epic musical adventure.” Brought together by time travel, a mysterious refrigerator, and a dating site called Cupid’s Leftovers, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (McCollum) and experimental composer and installation artist Kat (Vigoda) weather two antarctic winters and the cold indifference of the art world as Kat learns to face the uncertainties of parenthood head-on. Vigoda’s live looping performances and soaring electric violin are vivid, emotional, and technically impressive; McCollum transitions convincingly between the role of Ernest and a chorus of farcical supporting characters, gracefully balancing comedy with more poignant moments; the production’s use of multimedia—particularly projected historical footage from Shackleton’s real-life journey—succeeds in creating a sense of awe at the explorer’s against-all-odds story without overpowering the action onstage. 

Yet though I enjoyed myself immensely, I couldn’t help but wish that playwright Joe Pietro had pushed the plot and the characters further. In the ninety minutes we spend with Kat and Ernest, we don’t gain a nuanced understanding of what motivates them or how they gather the strength they need to do the seemingly impossible. In the opening song, we learn that Kat dreams of fame in the art world and fears she will be unable to support herself or her child as a single mother. Ernest is hungry for adventure and maintains a stoic, optimistic attitude in order to inspire his men. Full-fledged optimism, the two sing, is the answer to their problems. Yet while perseverance and optimism are inspiring, the show’s insistent focus on this one core theme feels a bit pat and one-note. Kat’s self-doubt upon finding herself a single mother is referenced throughout the show, but it remains oddly abstract and tangential to the central action of the plot. Similarly, Ernest only briefly expresses fear and doubt, and when he does, Kat simply tells him to “man up.” I would have preferred to see the couple discuss and explore their fears, giving the audience a sense of who their are behind their facades of bravery, and making their undaunted perseverance even more compelling.

Hippolyta shines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw and the first Shakespeare play I ever read. When I was six, I attended a summer camp where I dressed up in a fairy costume and sang Titania’s lullaby. I’ve seen at least five productions of the play, but until last month, when I saw Shakespeare & Company’s Northeast Regional Tour of Shakespeare production of Midsummer, I had never paid much attention to Hippolyta. In act 1, scene 1, she usually stands to the side while Theseus explains the ancient law of Athens, and I wait for the action to pick up.

A Fight

Shakespeare & Company’s touring production opened with a ritualized fight scene. Hippolyta and Theseus, played by Brittany Morgan and Jordan Jones, circled each other as the chorus beat out a rhythm with wooden sticks. As the chorus continued to drum, the two actors began a stylized fight, Morgan’s Hippolyta matching Jones’ Theseus blow for blow. When Theseus knocked the weapon out of Hippolyta’s hands, she leaped at him and he caught her around the waist. Then, as the lighting changed, their eyes met. The actors stepped apart, and, after a brief on-stage costume change, act 1 of Shakespeare’s play began.

I was riveted.

If you pick up a copy of Midsummer, you won’t find the stage direction a fight italicized at the top of act 1. But it’s also true that the opening of Shakespeare & Company’s production remained grounded in the text, dramatizing Theseus’ lines 16-17: “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries.”

In Greek myth, the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta married the Greek Theseus after he defeated her in battle. Theseus’ opening speech to Hippolyta sexualizes violence in a way that often makes modern audiences uncomfortable — ‘I wooed thee with my sword?’ Is that phallic? What does it mean? — and so perhaps it’s not surprising that, in many, productions, actors glide past them. Yet these problematic lines are the first to hint at Hippolyta’s identity, and the next hint doesn’t come until Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in act 2, scene 1 when, in lines 70-71, Titania refers to Hippolyta as “… the bouncing Amazon, / Your buskined mistress and your warrior love.”

By opening the play with a slightly abstract representation of battle, the production chose to emphasize Hippolyta and Theseus’ history as adversaries in war and refused to minimize the more troubling aspects of their relationship.

What Say You, Hermia?

The Shakespeare & Company production ran about an hour and a half without intermission, a time limit that had necessitated significant cuts to the script. The alteration that stuck out to me the most, however, was not a cut line, but a reassigned one.

In every other version of Midsummer that I’ve seen or read, Hippolyta has only five lines in scene 1. Though she remains onstage until line 127, when Hermia and Lysander are left alone, Hippolyta doesn’t speak after Egeus, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander enter to plead their cases to Theseus.

In Shakespeare & Company’s production, when Egeus and the lovers entered, Theseus moved downstage to speak with them. Throughout lines 41-45, Hippolyta remained slightly upstage, listening to Egeus demand that Theseus grant him “…the ancient privilege of Athens; / As she is mine, I may dispose of her; / Which shall be either to this gentleman / Or to her death…”

At the end of Egeus’ speech, Morgan’s Hippolyta suddenly crossed downstage to Hermia and spoke line 46, Theseus’ line: “What say you, Hermia?”

Reassigning Theseus’ line to Hippolyta transforms a gesture of paternal goodwill into a female challenge to patriarchal power. Like the opening fight scene, the reassigned line gave Morgan’s Hippolyta greater agency than many productions grant her. It was a strong choice, and an effective one, but I have to question if it was appropriate to make a choice that so clearly goes against the text.

If altering the text were the only way to portray Hippolyta as an active character, then I would say that she isn’t intended to be active. However, as the opening fight scene and Morgan’s strong physicality throughout the show demonstrated, Hippolyta’s agency can be conveyed non-verbally without altering the text. Since this is the case, the reassigning the line is unnecessary. While the opening fight was not included in the text, it grew out of events referred to in the text. Reassigning Theseus’ line to Hippolyta is, in my eyes, not an outgrowth but a distortion of the text.

However, both of these unconventional choices prompted me to reexamine Hippolyta’s role in Midsummer. In the talk-back after the performance, Morgan explained that, in adding the opening fight scene, the company had hoped to give the audience a better understanding of who Hippolyta is and what role she serves throughout the play.

Remembering to Listen

I realized that I had previously thought of Hippolyta, when I thought of her at all, an unimportant character present only as Theseus’ wife and Titania’s human counterpart. Too often, in minimizing or failing to address the uncomfortable details of Theseus and Hippolyta’s courtship, productions ignore Hippolyta’s rich mythological history.

Shakespeare & Company’s presentation of Hippolyta made me rethink how I read Midsummer. I also realized just how easy it is, when watching or reading something familiar, to stop paying attention to it, and I’m very grateful to this production for reminding me to sit up and listen.