Highly Recommended **** By the time I saw “Royal Society of Antarctica” it had already received considerable acclaim so I was surprised to find the small house less than full. Perhaps it had to do with the sub-zero temperatures outside and the knowledge that The Gift tends to produce extremely convincing plays. Its production of Mat Smart’s new play is no exception. A set ( Megan Truscott) of austere barracks and full of rag-tag items that one hopes might one day be useful because no-one is quite sure how to dispose of them (Rita Thornton), remote but bright lighting (Michael Stanfill), and most of all, costumes (Alarie Hammock) appropriate for the polar weather, made sure that we knew for that night Jefferson Park in Chicago would be the bottom of the earth.
Mat Smart’s play concerns Dee (Aila Peck), one of the few people born in Antarctica, who returns there to work as a janitor and search for answers about her mother’s death, and encounters people seeking and running from every conceivable human situation. Two individual’s quests directly overlap with her own. The first is tragic: the cocky and insubordinate naval officer Miller (Brian Keys), also haunted by the death of his mother, briefly pursues a romance with Dee, but perishes, like her mother, in the Antarctic wilderness. In the second, Ace (John Case Connolly): a man who has made love on every continent and with someone born on every continent except Antarctica and thus has a special interest in Dee is more tragicomic than anything the hands of Connolly. In fact, he is much more somber, empty, and morose than threatening. So much so, in fact, that Dee seems to develop a more quiet intimacy with him by the play’s end than she does with any of the other characters.
UT Tom (Paul D’Addario) is pursuing the cold and tight-lipped Pam (Lynda Newton), not simply for a fling or consolation in turns out, but for a family life in civilization. The saucy, damaged, and amoral Tamara (Brittany Burch), who gives Dee a copy of James Errol Jones reads the Bible on tape to make the menial work “seem more significant” while superstitiously pursuing a near adulterous affair with UT Tim (Jay Worthington) whom she neglects to tell she has a finance outside of Antarctica until he rather forces the point by proposing, and even then only at Dee’s insistence.
The audio copy of the bible Tamara gives Dee is often played, and initially is as kitschy as one would James Errol Jones reading the New Testament to sound. However, with the introduction of the Scientist Jake (Kyle Zornes): a hurt and ostracized graduated student whom quickly develops a crush on Dee, but is more interest in Algae that freezes and then comes back to life, the King James version of Paul’s epistles on resurrection tend to take on more significant meanings, and we wonder if there isn’t some hope for these people. If algae, frozen dead can come back to life, and we hear that we all be made glorious “and changed in the twinkling of an eye” could some sort of personal satisfaction await these characters in civilization where their their lives could be made rich and full. I don’t’ think the play ultimately answers the character’s dilemmas by its end in any real way, and that threatens to make the play deeply unsatisfying, but it was more than saved by the deep psychological acuity with which both Smart and every single actor explored the play’s characters. One of the most amusing things to watch was the betrayals and harm done to each other by the forced intimacy. More than a few balls and gatherings looked those family Thanksgivings that go horribly, horribly wrong.Nobody was as pitch-perfect as Ailia Peck and Lynda Newton who seemed to embody to zenith’s hope, but each actor gave more than a stage worthy performances as they try to hold out some sort of hope while negotiating the deepest desires of their life at the bottom of the earth.
“Royal Society of Antarctica” plays through April 26th 2015 at the Gift Theatre located at 4802 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30. Tickets are between 25 and 35 dollars and can be purchased at www.thegiftheatre.com or by calling 773-283-7071. It runs (a fast) three hours with two intermissions.
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