Stage review: Set of 'Antarktikos' helps play explore a cold stage of life


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Script, performance and stagecraft -- and the greatest of these is usually script, right? Except that it's often performance. And then along comes a case where the first among equals is stagecraft. Such is the world premiere of Andrea Stolowitz's "Antarktikos," where the physical production is so evocative that you might turn off the words and still intuit the emotional trajectory.

So all hail The Rep's scenic/sonic artists who have taken the tiny expanse of the Playhouse Studio Theatre and made magic, using just a few platforms, drop cloths, lights (not just lighting), a canny backdrop and artful projections, the whole suffused with imagination, much of it ours.

'Antarktikos'

Where: Point Park University's The Rep in the Studio Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $24 (student discount available); 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.

This seductive setting carries a story that upsets and expands expectation. Memoirist Susan, who arrives post-divorce in Antarctica to find material to ease her writer's block, is met by a young scientist who starts to show her the ropes and at this point you should stop reading if you want the pleasure of encountering "Antarktikos" on your own.

For the rest of you: By the time Susan finds herself in a tent with Robert Falcon Scott, the indomitable polar explorer who died down there 101 years ago, you realize her trip isn't what she thinks. She has had a traffic accident, and while on one side of the compact stage we see her try to make sense of her meeting with Scott (and he with her), on the other side her body is in a hospital, being tended to by Alex, the EMT who brought her there.

Then her estranged 20-something daughter, Hilary, shows up, and we settle into cleverly elaborated parallels between Susan and Scott -- her spiritual hallucination, we suppose -- and Hilary and Alex. You could say both couples meet cute. Of course, they meet across large gulfs: Hilary is too angry to notice Alex, and Scott is dead.

You can guess much of the rest but not necessarily the ultimate end. Meanwhile, there's plenty to think about in these parallel tales of male and female, life on the verge of death and the difficulty of self-knowledge. Scott (a terminal memoirist, hint hint) learns about women, a century after the fact; Hilary's anger softens; dancing is never just dancing (as Freud might have said), or skiing, skiing. I couldn't help thinking of Harper's similar Antarctic fantasy in "Angels in America."

Gradually it's clear that the central relationship is that between mother and child, and the play has much to say about letting go. Susan works out her emotional blockage in fantasy or dream, as we often do (or what is theater for?), finding forgiveness, some of it her own. How moving this is may depend on where you are in your own life.

Amy Landis' Susan starts out seeming whiny, but as we understand her situation she begins to glow with self-knowledge. As Scott, Tony Bingham is likable in an intrinsically artificial role. Billy Hepfinger's Alex isn't given much to do beyond bumbling, tongue-tied, and does it well enough, and Morgan Wolk's Hilary is at her best in her anger.

Ms. Stolowitz's interesting 100-minute play (without intermission) comes to Playhouse Rep thanks to the advocacy of playwright Tammy Ryan. And now the scenic/sonic honor role: Stephanie Meyer-Staley (set), Cathleen Crocker-Perry (costumes), Todd Wrenn (lights), Steven Shapiro (sound, subtle but significant) and Jessi Sedon-Essad (poetic projections), all under the masterful control of stage manager Kim Martin and director Sheila McKenna.

The play's title uses the name Aristotle gave the distant south polar lands whose existence he only intuited. Here, it suggests how we intuit a similarly distant, cold stage of life. Ms. Stolowitz's ending feels too wishful and pat, but she's not the only one to discover comfort in surcease.

theaterreviews

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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