Terra Nova

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday February 24, 2015

Terra Nova
  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

Ted Tally takes the title for his play "Terra Nova" from the seagoing vessel used by Robert Scott on Scott's doomed second attempt to reach the South Pole.

Though Scott reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, he lost the race to the bottom of the globe to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The play delves into the philosophical differences between Scott and Amundsen, including Scott's refusal to use dogs to pull a sled heavily laden with supplies. (Though the play doesn't get into this, Scott thought he could transport his 1,000-pound sled using ponies wearing snowshoes.) One of Scott's objections to the use of dogs was horror at Amundsen's plan to eat the dogs as food when the time came -- an unthinkable abuse, to the soft-hearted Scott of this production.

Scott is played by Chris Chiampa, and Amundsen by Samuel Frank. The two have conversations in Scott's hallucinating imagination, which serves as a forum for Scott's own excoriating self-doubt. He regards his team of four fellow sojourners as surrogate sons; they have all followed him on this second expedition out of personal loyalty. For a leader who cannot bear the idea of slaughtering a dog for food, the loss of a man is intolerable, and yet it's toward that inevitability that the small crew slides, day by frozen day, as they trudge across the tundra.

The play's text is faithful to the historic tragedy and seems to have been informed by more modern armchair quarterbacking, in which the way the team prepared for and executed the expedition has come in for critique. In the arguments he has with Amundsen, Scott hears about the science behind the Norwegian's triumph, including the use of scientific data on caloric requirements and rations. That reliance on numbers -- the cool calculations if science -- raises Scott's hackles. An Englishman to the core, he prefers to think in terms of valor, inborn English superiority, and sheer human will. (It's a little reminiscent of the attitudes of certain stripes of the American religious and conservative demographic, which routinely dismiss mundane concerns such as mathematics, science, biology, chemistry, and anything else that cannot be encapsulated by hands folded in prayer and shrink-wrapped in logic-proof self-justification.)

The play sympathizes with Scott, while not shying from the disastrous results of what seems to us now like his recklessness and magical thinking. Chris Bocchiaro's often cold, often murky lighting design and Brad Smith's sound design (which features a lot of howling wind) sketch out an impression of vast desolation. (The walk to and from the New Rep, with ice underfoot, piles of snow looming all around, and temperatures hovering just above the single-digit range, also fed the mood.) As dire as his circumstances become, Scott refuses to embrace hard, heartless pragmatism and jettison his kinder, more romantic notions; he's both explorer and gentleman. Director Jake Scaltetro skillfully oversees Chiampa's performance, which preserves Scott's romanticism while also accommodating the doubts, and growing unease and even guilt, that accompany the expedition's slow-motion failure.

Scott's hallucinations occasionally depart from imagined exchanges with Amundsen, and include flashbacks to conversations he's had with his wife, Kathleen (Kamela Dolinova), a fascinating character in her own right. He also imagines himself addressing members of the Royal Geographical Society, which underwrote the expedition. These scenes fill in needed background, and round out our understanding of Scott's character, but perhaps the key moment -- the scene that provides scale, in the trackless Antarctic wasteland, against which to measure the emotional toll of the journey -- is a rather startling sequence that finds the cast dressed up in tuxedos.

It's the start of Act II, and Scott and his men are eating a celebratory dinner at a fine restaurant, being served by a French waiter (Frank, who dons a convincing and funny French accent). The moment is warm -- a rarity in this production -- and its unhurried unfolding offers respite and shows us another side of Scott's men, all of whom respond in different ways to the prospect of a fancy meal. The dinner is taking place months after the men return from the South Pole, disappointed at having come in second. It's a wholly imagined scene, but somehow more concrete and real in tone than the grueling, frigid push across the snow that slowly saps their strength.

Joining Chiampa onstage are Matt Arnold as Bowers, James Hayward as Wilson, Kevin Kordis as Oates, and Robin Gabrielli as Evans. Each character, in his own way, has a chance to present a emotional counterpoint to the steady, even-keeled, and quite determined Scott: Where one character is relentlessly upbeat, another is increasingly angry and fearful. Scott's own bullheaded, single-minded focus is superseded by a team member who deliberately hides evidence of a badly injured hand, fearful of being sent back to base camp. In various ways, it's as though all of these men were made in Scott's own mold, or parts of it; it's as a team that they will live or die. Excerpts from Scott's own diary, kept until shortly before he perished of cold and starvation, keep the play rooted in the ice, tethering its flights of creative fancy.

There are nitpicks to be had with some of the structuring (flashback- and hallucination-heavy plays can be difficult to manage) but the biggest gripe may be the LED light panel the production uses. The large, square panel is located against he back wall of the performance space; it suggests a blank white sky, and the LED lights evoke the Aurora Australia (Southern Lights), but the panel also distracts the eye and diverts the attention. This dreamy, frozen drama belongs to its actors, who have to compete unfairly with the light panel.

"Terra Nova" continues through February 28 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit http://flatearththeatre.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.