Humanity’s commitment for exploration has waned as modern technology has made the world seem smaller, but at least there’s new theatrical ground yet to be discovered. Balagan Theatre’s world premiere production of the musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me happens to meet at the intersection of tech and exploration. The show loads a powder keg of personality and quirk into its tight one-act, two actor structure and lights the fuse. It results in an entertaining explosion, though not without a bit of collateral damage.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me centers on Kat (Valerie Vigoda), a manic modern composer wrapped in a ‘90s hacker film aesthetic: Donning a hoodie, covered in tattoos, and rocking a two-toned purple coif. She aspires to write electronic rock opuses, but to pay the bills she takes a job scoring a sci-fi video game. Surprisingly, she finds the job thrilling and her fantastical compositions test off the charts, but her inability to work well with others and her isolationist tendencies end up getting her fired. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Kat’s also running on fumes after having been awake for days and the deadbeat father of her infant child just ran away to join a Journey cover band. She vents the developments on her new video blog, which unexpectedly garners an unusual audience – famous dead explorers. Inspired by the epic scope of her compositions, these men reach out across time and space to contact and court Kat. Foremost among them is Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum), who, after numerous calls, is able to connect with Kat via Skype (conveyed via the large on-stage video screen). Soon after, he emerges from Kat’s freezer and the two venture off on a romantic and harrowing musical journey reliving his actual trouble-ridden quest.
Considering the show is focused on a composer, it’s fitting that the soaring score carries Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. Energetic rock songs like “Stop Rewind Play Record” build around Kat’s violin playing and instrumental looping (since Kat composes on her own). The lyrics can get a touch overwrought at times (there’s no need for forced pop culture references), but there’s a simple sweetness to main of the tunes, especially Kat and Ernest’s duet “We’re On Our Way.” One of the most compelling aspects of the production is the live performance of instruments by the actors. While McCollum’s banjo plucking as Shackleton is fairly basic, Vigoda shows off her musicianship as she frequently straps on her electric violin and plays along while singing her tunes. The only problem here lies in the sound mixing, which really buries the on-stage performance under the other electronic music layers, resulting in the live playing not popping nearly as much as it should (one could easily think the actors aren’t actually playing, just miming playing – the levels are that poorly mixed).
The script by Tony-winner Joe DiPietro doesn’t feign subtlety when drawing a comparison between the Shackleton’s adventurous, daring, and eternally optimistic spirit—the one Kat aspires to achieve—and the lonely self-loathing of her day-to-day reality. Shackleton’s actual true-life journey is worth being retold, but Kat’s own storyline suffers a bit from her character’s lack of self-awareness. Here realizations just seem to consistently be a quarter-step behind. The story’s playful tone gives the production feel brisk feel, but unfortunately the dialogue far too often relies on using f-bombs for comedic effect in place of actual jokes.
Wade McCollum owns the stage with his portrayal of Ernest Shackleton. He plays Shackleton with dashing bravado that’s hammy in the best way possible, oozing a charisma and relentless sense of hope that could compel anyone to follow his dangerous path of exploration. Vigoda brings out the neurosis and sense of wonder in Kat’s character, and the occasional lapses into dopiness aren’t her fault as much as a byproduct of the script. While inconsistent, Ernest Shackleton Love Me crackles with an imaginative spark worthy of its intrepid namesake.