Welcome back, Wellesley!
The theatre is excited to have many events on the books this academic year, keeping you inspired and always learning (as well as very entertained). Our first show is Measure for Measure, starring the Actors from the London Stage. You may have seen some cast members in your classes this week, and if so you can attest to how truly talented they are. Hailing from all over the UK and professionally trained in theatre performance, you will be seeing actors that have performed with such acclaimed groups as Royal Shakespeare Company and at Shakespeare’s Globe – it does not get more impressive than that.
Did I mention that all of these performances – which take place Thursday thru Saturday at 7pm – are free of charge? The bottom line is that there are no excuses not to see this sensational production, especially if you are an English or theatre major.
Truth is truth
To th’end of reck’ning. – (Isabella, Act 5 Scene 1)
The truth is, you cannot afford to miss this one, so mark your calendars now.
In this blog post, the second part of a two-part series featuring interviews with the cast of Sonia Flew, we get political: delving into how the play, which takes place at two very dramatic periods in history, relates to our current cultural struggle, both politically and socially. More importantly perhaps, the cast begins to draw conclusions as to what lessons can be learned from the world of the play for its audience members. An overarching theme? We – natives and immigrants alike – truly are stronger together.
One of the most important aspects of this play, which you only have three more chances to see live, is the intimate space it takes place in. In the second section of the post, we discuss what exactly is so unique and, really, great about small theaters for both the actor and the audience. Do not miss your chance to see this tremendous play, 781.283.2000 for tickets to the final three performances!
Do you think there are parallels to be drawn between the world of Sonia Flew, particularly as it relates to 1960s Cuba, and our current political and social climates?
Woody Gaul: It is a crazy time that we are in right now and I think it is hard to hold onto the truth in a time like today where there is so much information coming from everywhere and so many mistruths. This play that we are doing right now is a hotbed where, in the Cuba act specifically, they are in the middle of this revolution in which they do not know what is going to happen and do not know how drastic the changes will be. Looking at it through 21st century eyes, we can see that it did not just end, none of it did get brushed aside and they are under this communist rule still. For the 2001 act, to look back and see that this mission we thought would be over in a couple of months and perhaps the character Zac might not even go to war post-enlisting…today we look back and see the devastation. To look at the precipice of the world right now with all its uncertainty, not just in this country, but throughout the world, we know we have to fight for what we believe in and what is right for your country and yourself and your family. I think it is really incredible what Melinda [Lopez] is able to do with this play, looking at a world view, a national view, and then break it down further into a family unit and an individual’s role in all of the above.
Luis Negron: Absolutely. The play went up in ’04 and all these years later it still resonates, because we are talking about people being displaced and being displaced for political reasons. Whether it is the current administration “cleaning house” or the Castro regime “cleaning house” for different reasons, they are both doing the same thing: they are dividing families. Instead of working from within to change, they are pushing people out the door. That is what Sonia Flew introduces, this concept of all these children that are displaced and who are forced to leave and be separated from their families because of political strife.
Mariela Lopez-Ponce: Yes, in many ways. There are the obvious ones, the parallels in immigration which is a constant thread for this country, not just now, though we do currently have very specific challenges. I also think the play is timeless because the themes of family and the dynamics of a family – and you see it in both settings of the play [Wisconsin and Havana, Cuba] – the really challenging issues that parents and children face as the kids are growing and trying to create their own identity. Particularly for Sonia in the first act there is a theme of adults as partners and as parents grappling with things that the rest of the family really does not or cannot understand. There is a very interesting line that the son says to Sonia which (paraphrasing) goes: You think it is behind you, you think it doesn’t affect you, but it is not. That is really true and it is important to realize how that concept has roots in every other member of the family. They are timeless themes, but very powerful ones.
Ed Peed: We are facing our own revolution – or rather, anti-revolution, with the government revolting against its people. There are definite parallels on a global scale: some flew and some died. I hope this won’t continue much longer. The current administration in Washington are a morally and spiritually bankrupt administration in toto. I am from Alabama and we dealt with Jeff Sessions for many, many years down there. It was not a pretty sight.
Nancy Tutunjian Berger: In some ways. It is not identical of course, but it is safe to say that our country is going through some difficult changes right now. A lot of things are coming to the surface and I think there is a certain level of unrest that centers around the whole immigration issue. This play is about people in a country who are living in turmoil and so they are trying to find a way to deal with that – an alternative way to deal with that. I think we are on the other end of the spectrum here trying to sort out how do we want to handle immigration and immigration in certain areas and how do we want to deal with that? So I think we are sort of on the flip side of what the Cuban half went through. There are lessons to be learned at that level from Sonia Flew’s story.
Brigitte Demelo: I think so. This is a play about immigrants and what it feels like to be stuck between two countries, so I feel like that resonates with a lot of people today esp. in light of the recent political shift.
Karina Ithier: Sonia Flew is really about family. For me especially in the first act, when everything is going crazy and Zac is heading off to war, with the tensions that come to the family through that, and Sonia is remembering her past of when she was sent from Cuba but she doesn’t want to share any of it. There is a lot of tension and misunderstanding/miscommunication and sacrifice for the family. Today, with the administration we have not really understanding people’s sacrifices and what they leave behind when they come her as well as why they come here and what matters – we have such a bad rep with immigrants and I think esp. today I think think it is really important to show that we need to pay attention to people’s stories. They are us, they are people with stories. If we were to actually listen, perhaps we could create some change. I think theatre has the way to uncover those voices you might not necessarily hear.
When many people think of theatre they think of large markets such as New York and L.A. What do you think is the benefit of a smaller market and, to go further, a smaller playhouse, for both the actor and the audience member?
Luis Negron: Smaller theaters are generally more affordable, which means that they are more accessible. When we talk about the large theaters we are talking tickets that might be as low as $40 or they might be as high as over $100 (more for big ticket shows). That makes theatre inaccessible for a lot of people. I think that defeats the purpose of theatre. Theatre is meant to inform: we are the story tellers and if we can’t have a broad audience with whom we can tell the story we are kind of screwed. What are we here for?
Interview with Ed Peed
Setting aside the affordability factor for a moment, when you come to a smaller theatre, it is a much more intimate experience – you are not 47 rows away from the action, you are right up in our faces – literally, we can see your eyes – and they see us and, whether they realize it or not, they are in the scene with us. The emotions are often felt more deeply then. The audience does not have to struggle with “what did they say?” No, they are right there, only a few feet away from us. It is almost as if we came into your living room. You are sitting on the sofa and we are right in front of you. I like it much better.
Ed Peed: I prefer the Boston theatre market. It is more like a family: Everyone knows everyone here. Living in New York…well, I have no earthly desire. Its a good place to vacation for a few days or for a week, but I would never in my wildest imagination live there. This is a much more reasonable town and much more comfortable. There is much more of a solid community. New York is city of many communities all jammed together. There is more room to develop as an artist here and more opportunity to do so…and the people are nicer.
Mariela Lopez-Ponce: I love the small playhouse, certainly for plays like this one. A few audience members have actually commented on how this play is very intimate. In both acts, it is a family setting, it is a very emotional play in many ways, and having that close proximity makes the audience feel there – in that home, at that dinner table. For a show like this, that proximity is part of the energy that has to happen. I love that connection and feeling that – you know, sometimes when we play we are a foot away from the audience – there’s nothing like that. I love the Boston theatre scene, there is a tremendous amount of talent of all ages and a lot of small theaters doing very interesting and very risky things that often in a larger market might not be attempted. Small, independent theaters are doing really interesting work: very interesting plays, unique ways of staging them. So I think it is a very rich market.
Interview with Nancy Tutunjian Berger
Woody Gaul: We are very fortunate here at Wellesley Repertory Theatre because we do not have as many of the restrictions of many of the bigger houses even in Boston and as many demands to commercially succeed, so Nora [Hussey, Artistic Director] is really able to choose plays that she loves and her directors love and that are right for this community. I am glad that she has been able to fully see through and accomplish her vision in such a great way, building a strong repertory company that at its heart really does and greatly can promote the Wellesley students and afford them the opportunity to have a professional company right in their backyard. This theatre space is so unique in that it can completely reconfigure itself each time. I have done around 12 productions in this space and there are so many setups for the Ruth Nagel that I’ve seen the designers take advantage of. It is really interesting to see loyal patrons come in and ask where they should sit for this specific show – here, you never know what world you are going to come into. There are so many different possibilities.
In New York, there is so much of everything, everybody goes there. So unless you are on the equity level, it is difficult to break into the scene and really understand what you are getting into. In Boston, everything is a lot more accessible and open. It has been a really positive, supportive experience and truly there is a great theatre family throughout Boston. This city is such a large college town, so it has a really young, continuing, fresh life that continues to flow through it in really interesting, unique ways.
Karina Ithier: There is a sort of intimacy with theatre and its location. Theatre is something special for the community it takes place in. Theatre, for me, is a space where you can tell counter narratives, stories that are important for the community to hear and evolve from. I think it is important to keep in mind that this is not simply for entertainment, but rather these are real stories and narratives that people can relate to and can perhaps help someone. Therefore, the intimacy of a small theatre is that you carry a story that is important for the community to share, experience, and become closer to each other through by understanding each other more.
Interview with Karina Ithier
Nancy Tutunjian Berger: When you are in a small space like this it is as if the audience has the opportunity to be in the play, because they are up so close. For the actor, this is nice because they see the subtleties and you don’t have to project to the back of the 1,500 seat auditorium. You can really play the subtleties and your ability to feed off of the audience is greater, creating an intimacy.
As far as it being a smaller theatre community, that fact is great because it is six degrees of separation: it is like a web that connects you, making it a little easier to get work or to get into some of the different venues. In short, it is a smaller, more connected community.
Brigitte Demelo: I love this space [The Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre]!. I have actually had a lot of plays down here and any plays I have been a part of upstairs [in the larger Alumnae Hall theatre space], we have converted the space into a small, blackbox theatre on the stage. I love these intimate quarters where you can look a person in the audience in the eye and feel a presence there. As if they are acting in the scene with us.
Some of my favorite concepts taken from my interviews with the talented cast of Sonia Flew are ones that can be easily applied both inside and outside the theatre: listen to your intuition; happy accidents may change the course of your life; and stop fighting yourself, embrace your passions whole-heartedly. Through entertaining stories of church pageants, being “discovered” outside of your academic advisor’s office, and turning in handwritten plays in lieu of assigned papers, we learned some fabulous life lessons, as well as theatre-specific lessons for you actors out there. Only nine shows are left: so book now through our box office.
How did you get into acting and what do you most love about it?
Nancy Tutunjian Berger: I got into acting when I was in college. It was a happy accident. I had an appointment with my advisor who’s office happened to be next to the drama director’s. I went in and was singing to myself, waiting, and the drama director came in and asked, “Do you have a few minutes?” I said, “No, I am waiting for my advisor.” He said [my advisor] wouldn’t be back for a while, so to come with him. He then had me sing something, gave me a premise, and gave me a script, saying he was casting a musical and still couldn’t find someone to play a certain part. We read lines and he asked if wanted to do it. I was immediately like “No. I’ve never done this. I can’t do this.” But this director was really smart and asked me to give him a two week commitment – come to rehearsals for two weeks and if I still feel like you can’t do this, then he will find someone else.
In those two weeks, I started making friends and having fun. Then opening night I remember being in the wings with the nervous butterflies. I thought ‘What have I done?’ ‘What have I done?!’ Then I went out on that stage and felt that audience and thought, “This is GREAT!” That was it. I did all of the plays at school and got involved in community and regional theaters. So I kept with it. That coincidence was very providential for me.
Ed Peed: The thing that made me want to consider this, pursue this, study this, and do this as a profession was a play I saw in high school at the local college where I eventually attended…and met my future wife of 46 years. It was a production of The Caretaker and was just so exquisite, so perfect, and moving that I immediately said that this is what I wanted to do. And it is what I did.
Karina Ithier: I’ve always been drawn to theatre and all artsy, creative things. I always went to summer camps for theatre in my town and my parents would bring me to local theatre shows – I have just always had a love for performing. I did dance as a kid but there is something about the playhouse that I love. One big thing that I think theatre does that I really appreciate, is that every show that you are in creates a new dynamic and makes a new family. You become so close to them [as in the other cast members] because you work so hard with them and you have to trust them. You really learn to pay attention and listen in rehearsals. Acting is reacting. And it is just incredible.
Woody Gaul: I first got into acting in an actual organized fashion when I was 14 years old, after playing King Herod in a Christmas pageant. Prior to that period I had performed only in church pageants, which is actually how I made the transition into community theatre. One of the members of my church parish was involved in this theatre and asked me if I would be interested in coming and auditioning for a play. The first play I was in was Richard III, which was a huge, overwhelming, wonderful experience. The director of that production was also the artistic director of the company and had such wonderful knowledge of Shakespeare and how to teach it to an inexperienced actor in such a way that made me fall in love with Shakespeare and his language. That experience really propelled my acting career. I think that what I love about theatre has changed greatly in my 20+ years onstage in the fact that I think I was much more interested in performing than now, where I really enjoy the rehearsal process the most and that period of uncertainty in the rehearsal process where you don’t really know where you are going and how you are going to get there.
Interview with Woody Gaul
Luis Negron: Acting has always been an interest of mine. I finally started taking classes, however, only in my college years. I took classes at HB Studio in New York City, auditing classes by greats like Uta Hagen. It was a terrific experience. So I guess you could say I was slow coming to it and slow to embrace it: I was introduced incrementally, little by little over years.
The impulse [that started me on this path] was kind of a conviction or, really, finally accepting that, “You know what? I think this is what I was meant to be, so stop fighting and embrace it.” It was an inner voice if you will.
Mariela Lopez-Ponce: From childhood I loved acting and the theatre. I remember in elementary school I would turn any assignment I could into a little play. It is a lifelong passion and it is not actually my profession, but I love it and I do it when I can.
Brigitte Demelo: I just followed my interests and they led me to doing what I am doing now. I had done some acting as a child and a little bit in high school. When I came to Wellesley [College], there were so many opportunities available in theatre that I was able to jump right in.
How would you describe the creative process of getting into the world of your characters?
Woody Gaul: I am a very introverted person in general. My creative process is very introverted as well. For me personally, in developing characters I think it is incredibly important – esp. in stage productions – to have good, strong relationships with everyone in the company. But as far as my personal creative process, I tend to internalize and question a lot, then take my characters(s) outside of the rehearsal hall and run thru it all in my head to figure out how my character walks, their cadence, what they eat, drink, and, really, how this character lives in their world in order to establish that in myself in some honest way. Once you go through the creative process of rehearsal period you can just show up on show day and easily slide into that skin.
Mariela Lopez-Ponce: For my own interest, I took acting classes throughout high school and early adulthood. I think those are really key to set the fundamentals of acting. Overtime the process becomes much more intuitive: you walk into a character and a lot of what goes on is unconscious. It is coupled with the training that is somewhere in you and kind of guides that process.
Karina Ithier: I don’t like to think a lot [in creating my character]. I know a lot of actors like to go back and build a history of the character, asking “What would my character do when ________ happens?”. And I think I, first, just look at the words of what the character is saying and try to relate them to the emotions. My director now, Lois [Roach, director of Sonia Flew], tells us that as an actor you should do something with intuition. Don’t do something because you want it to look right, do it because it feels right, even if it is not in the blocking.
Luis Negron: Getting into the world of any character – for me at least – starts with looking at the facts: Where is this taking place? When is this taking place? What are the issues? What is the history of the place and the time we are focused? What has been going on at that place? How would that affect my character? What is my characters role in that? That is where it begins for me: The biography of everything that frames the character…before I even look at the character himself.
Interview with Brigitte Demelo
Ed Peed: The script is where it all begins for me. This script [written by Melinda Lopez] in particular was so well wrought. I always go back to the script of a show.
Of course, I also rely on a great director. Lois is certainly one. I’ve worked with her several times and each has been fulfilling. I am just thrilled to be able to work with her again.
Nancy Tutunjian Berger: I read the script once or twice. In those readings, certain things will hit me that ring true to the character. For me, I like the memorization part to be done as soon as possible. That allows me to start building the nuances of the character. I really try to put myself in that situation and think how I would react in that situation. After I determine that, I start to think how the character would react and ask “How is the character different from me?” I build it in layers.
Brigitte Demelo: It all starts with the script: reading it and getting used to the language, pulling out what bits of information you think go into the character and then taking that into rehearsal to workshop it with the director and the other actors.
Metrowest Daily News, Three Sisters
By Keith Powers
June 8, 2017
Taking full advantage of Paul Schmidt’s fluidly idiomatic translation, the Wellesley Summer Theatre is staging a snappy, insightful production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre on the Wellesley campus.
Directed by Marta Rainer, the large, focused cast takes Chekhov’s drawing-room drama about three sisters and a brother who futilely long to return from the country to their native Moscow, and transforms it into a social battleground full of conniving, shifty, pathetic and angry characters.
Not easy to do when the subject is Russia, circa 1900. And the only real conflict seems to be that three pampered sisters, and the delusional brother they dote on, really don’t want to live in the unnamed countryside town they inhabit, but yearn for glamorous Moscow.
The noted poet Osip Mandelstam saw the work and said, “Give the sisters a railway ticket back to Moscow after Act 1 and the play will be over.” This once, Mandelstam’s insights failed him. Chekhov’s play may seem pedestrian on the surface, but talented players can make this deeply troubled network of extended family and friends come to vigorous life.
Which is exactly what happens here. The sisters – Olga (Caitlin Graham), Masha (Angela Bilkic), and Irina (Zena Chatila) – and their coterie of husbands, suitors, and friends, all have a chance to grow substantially during the course of Chekhov’s four acts. Certainly, they are stuck in a boring existence. They realize it. Some of them break down, succumbing to gambling, drink, or self-pity. But even while they yearn for a better future, they all wrap their developing psyches around the inevitable, and come to some begrudging acceptance of their circumstances.
The brilliance of the play lies first and foremost in character development. But Chekhov’s book, in Schmidt’s remarkably natural translation, is also dotted with subtle reminders of their exiled fate: calendar updates, clocks, broken clocks, anniversaries, mortgages and pocket watches serve as talismans throughout; constant references to migrating birds weave a note of sadness in as well.
Woody Gaul (as the verbose, soldier/dreamer Vershinin), Charles Linshaw (the persistent, self-aware Baron), Daniel Boudreau (the aggressively comic drunk Solyony), John Kinsherf (the sisters’ self-pitying uncle), Shelley Bolman (Masha’s dreary but generous cuckolded husband), and Samuel L. Warton (Andrei, the sisters’ underachieving sibling) all support the trio magnificently.
and unrelentingly cruel, splendidly inhabits the pivotal role of sister-in-law, trampling Andrei and gradually pushing the sisters out of their own house. The minor characters, other soldiers and house servants, also seemed torn directly from Chekhov’s own wish-list cast.
The sets (David Towlun), were simple but stylish, and the costumes (Emily Woods Hogue), period but not uncomfortably archaic. Both served the players well.
Rainer’s direction played a huge part in making this work so well. Introductory (and concluding) Russian folk dances and music eased the transition to 1900; her frequent ploy of setting a pair of players upstage, speaking together, unnoticed by the ensemble at the back of the stage, helped the action and audience understanding.
When characters bristle with life, even if their concerns seem dated or trivial, audiences can relate. These “Three Sisters” are worth seeing in action.
The Swellesley Report: Sonia Flew
First off, the last thing a mom should ask a nineteen-year-old young man hell-bent on joining the Marines in response to the 9/11 attacks is, “What do you know about how the world works?” And she certainly shouldn’t ask it with a world-weary air, making it clear that she is the one in the room who knows such things. Another suggestion: don’t follow it up by telling him, “You have such a limited understanding of these things.”
But that’s just real-world advice. For an opening scene in Melinda Lopez’s play, Sonia Flew, at Wellesley Repertory Theatre through June 25, an exhibition of such motherly disdain is the perfect way to set a tone of conflict and move the action forward. As the Elliot Norton Award-winning play opens, Sonia (Mariela Lopez-Ponce, on the edge of a nervous breakdown), Zak’s mom, has conveniently forgotten that in her early 1960s teenage past, becoming involved with Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution seemed like the perfect antidote to her controlling parents, a way to provide her life with purpose and and a sense of being part of something bigger than herself. The adult Sonia never sees — or refuses to see — the parallels between her former teenage self, ready to join the Revolution, and her current teenage son, on a fast-track to the Marines as his way of avenging the 9/11 attacks.
Producing Artistic Director Nora Hussey
Director Lois Roach
Production Manager David Towlun
Scenic Design Janie Howland**
Costume Design Chelsea Kerl
Lighting Design Becky Marsh
Sound Design Jack Staid
Stage Manager Lindsay D. Garofalo*
Alicia Olivo Assistant Director
Calla Nelles-Sager Assistant Stage Manager
Drew Chasse Production Assistant
**member of USA Local 829
*member of Actor’s Equity Association
This type of parallel comes up throughout the play, as we are shown in the first half a modern-day family grappling with the idea that the bright son who has just completed his freshman year of college now wants to go to war. I wanted to sit down at the kitchen table right along with the family and put forth the benefits that both Zak (played by Zach Georgian with stubbornness and a touch of glee as he hits one nerve after another) and the United States Armed Forces would reap if he entered the ROTC program, but it wasn’t my dialogue to tweak. In the name of creating dramatic tension, however, sending a braniac kid from a nice Jewish family off to put boots on the ground in the toughest branch of the service certainly works. (Playwright Lopez appeared earlier this Spring in Grand Concourse at SpeakEasy Stage in Boston.)
The second half of the play brings us to 1960s Cuba, where a teen-age Sonia (Christine de Jesus Ahsan, with innocence verging on adult understanding) is flattered by the attention of a slimy, opportunistic soldier (Woody Gaul). The young Sonia is too naive to comprehend his underlying motives, which turn out to be more about meeting his recruitment quota of teens to send to “camp” than a true interest in young Sonia’s future. Sonia is lately at odds with her parents, and more and more interested in what her role could be in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. She doesn’t comprehend that the Revolution is leading to a dictatorship. Her professor father does, however, but pretends that hunkering down and living quietly is the solution, even though he just saw ten of his colleagues marched out of the university in chains and taken to God only knows where. Only the mom sees it all plain as truth: life as her family has known it in Cuba is over, and she must get her daughter out. As in right now. Even when the last words her daughter tells her are “I do not forgive you. I will never forgive you.”
Truly, I was at the edge of my seat for then entire running time of 2 1/2 hours, including intermission. The thought of anything happening to Zak haunted me to the very end of the play. The idea that the young Sonia was teetering on a wire on which she never asked to step, and on which she couldn’t remain balanced, where landing on one side meant narrow or no choices, while ending up on the other side meant freedom with its incredibly high price, kept me spellbound. The bitterness of the adult Sonia as she refused to don the mantle of the strong, unflappable, unconditionally supportive mother and wife kept me yearning for her — redemption? Epiphany? Comeuppance? Rescue? I wasn’t sure, but had to find out which way Lopez would send it.
Sonia’s husband Daniel is played by Woody Gaul (Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight) with Rock-of-Gibraltar fortitude combined with mensch-like stability and decency. He’s the reassuring voice that guides his daughter through the family crisis with, “We’re not splitting up. This family doesn’t do that. We don’t.” Even when he hurls tough truths at his wife about her own behavior, there’s an undercurrent in his very being of the idea of forever. We’re not splitting up. We don’t do that. We won’t.
It’s always good to see Nancy Tutunjian Berger onstage (she appeared earlier this Spring in Enchanted April at The Center for Arts in Natick). As family friend Nina, Berger’s warmth and vulnerability allows us to see the meaning of family closeness during tough times on an island that is about to become virtually inescapable.
The Swellesley Report: Terra Nova
By Deborah Brown
April 6, 2017
How many Wellesley College students does it take to play a bunch of strong, competitive men determined to make it to the South Pole first? Seven, and you’ll be very impressed with their portrayal of all if you go to see “Terra Nova”, running at Wellesley College Theatre’s Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre through Sunday, April 9.
It takes a stubborn man to die trying to make history as the first-ever to explore the South Pole, that very bottom of the world.
It takes a stubborn and stupid man to all but encourage that death by clinging to British ideas of the “rules and standards among civilized men.” This is especially true when those rules and standards preach such nonsense as “no dogs allowed on the South Pole” and keep a stiff upper lip (easy enough when they’re freezing off), and for God’s sake, God save the Queen. Captain Robert Falcon Scott, played with absolute presence and authority by Sarah Lord, is that guy.
Scott has gone down in history as the leader of the fateful 1912 expedition/race to be the first to make it to the South Pole. He and every man in his crew died. To add insult to death, he was beaten there by over a month by practical-minded Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his well-supplied crew and their dogs.
Cut from a different cloth than Scott, Amundsen was the type to ignore other men’s rules and write his own playbook. He knows his team is brave and will gladly suffer for the goal, but he doesn’t see suffering as and end unto itself. And if a few dogs get eaten along the way, well, that’s just good planning. That guy, challenger to Scott’s goals and ideals, is played with resignation and quiet emotion underneath a stern exterior, by Juliette Bellacosa (also as Wanda last fall in The Waiting Room).
When these dueling philosophies of facing down and prevailing over brutal reality on its own terms vs. a tragic-hero way of looking at one’s place in the world butt up against each other, you’ve got “Terra Nova”, my good people, a play that still has the power to shock, even though history has already told us the ending. The production, directed by Nora Hussey, is such a powerful and visceral visit to Antarctica that you won’t warm up for days.
“Terra Nova” is written by playwright Ted Tally, who is best known for his screenplay The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which won numerous awards including the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Tally, who attended Yale College and Yale School of Drama, has also earned numerous awards for this play, which first debuted in 1977 at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
On the surface, “Terra Nova” is a simple competition story. Norwegian (and winner of the race to the South Pole) Roald Amundsen has got men and supplies, which are two things that meet with Scott’s approval. Amundsen also has working dogs, however, and his plan for them offends Scott’s sense of decency. Here’s the plan: Amundsen is going to allow the dogs to pull the hundreds of pounds of gear, work their hearts out for the goals of their masters, and then serve as food when the crew has reached the South Pole and needs the strength to get back home. Dog meat will supply that strength, Amundsen (correctly) reasons.
Then there’s Captain Robert Falcon Scott, scorner of situational ethics, who leaves it to the audience “…to decide how sporting that is,” vowing that come what may, he and his men will have played the game as it “ought” to have been played. It is here that Lord really pulls you into the play with a sly way of suggesting, without outright saying it, that you join in and learn the inside story. Her stage presence and ability to make the audience feel Scott in all his stages of adult life and across his many emotions are what make her performance not only stand out, but well worth going to see how this young woman effectively plays an experienced, tough, early 20th-century, explorer.
Well, I was in that audience Scott delivers a wink and a nod to, and I’ve decided about how sporting that is, Captain. My answer to your trick question is that it’s not sporting in the least. In fact, you make sport of me for framing the issue that way, sir. I put this to you, Captain: the expedition itself is not sport. The expedition is not a game. You’ve rather missed the point of it all, old man, and all your heroic ideals won’t keep your men safe or get you the glory you seek. Nothing wrong with it, glory, that is. But there’s a right way to get it, isn’t there? And there’s something not quite right about fame and adulation that comes at the cost of the lives of your entire crew.
I’m with Amundsen, who comes in and out of the story as a sort of omniscient ghost of Christmas That Will Be Horrible, who tells Scott, “You treat your gentlemen like dogs and your dogs like gentlemen.” With that sentence, the order of all priorities are laid bare. Any vision of Amundsen’s canine workers as wannabe lap dogs seeking only a forever home are banished, and the idea that the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care (Offspring, 2008) seems foolish.
The story is told in part through Scott’s journals, woven throughout the play. It is through those entries that we meet Scott’s wife Kathleen, played by Chiara Kay Seoh. Seoh does an excellent job of portraying a true-blue Englishwoman who is also a free-thinking hippy bohemian type. She too often rushes her lines, however, and at many points in the play I simply missed what she was saying. She was strongest by far in the argument scene with her husband. It was at this point when you could see Seoh’s talent, and it shines brightest when her character is allowed to interact with another character, which is seldom the case for Kathleen.
Throught the journals, we learn that Scott’s camp has set the bar for the “rules of engagement” impossibly high, while the other camp intends to simply walk under a bar they refuse to recognize. Scott’s moral compass, driven by obsession and determination, points only to the South Pole. Meanwhile, Amundsen’s compass is simply a tool that he uses to point him not only to the South Pole, but home from it.
Scott’s rules, in the end, set himself and his crew up for the spectacular and tragic failure they experienced. Still, it is Scott’s rules that allow him and his men to hang onto their basic human dignity. It is here, at the bitter end, that we see the seemingly cold Norwegian melt, as he concedes that although their expedition ended in failure, their lives did not. That Scott’s journey was celebrated in England despite its desperate end seems to give credence to the idea that their lives and deaths did indeed count for much, despite the outcome.
Call it respect for the English rules of engagement. Maybe give a minute to consider that having lived a meaningful life may have nothing to do with achieving an initial goal. Either way, you’ve got to admit, Scott and his crew put on a good show.
Maia Zelkind (also in The Waiting Room last fall as Nurse Bruce and Bridget) as Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates, with thoughtful intelligence and simmering rage. When she delivers the famous line, “”I am just going outside and may be some time,” and dashes out of the tent, I was left to ponder yet another layer of those English standards. Something about selflessness in the face of certain disaster.
Adeline du Crest as Dr. Edward Adrian “Bill” Wilson, who effectively became the calm in the center of every type of storm the crew encountered.
Chloe Nosan as Lt. Henry Robertson “Birdie”, with an amazing Scottish accent and great good humor.
Megan Ruppe as Petty Officer Edgar Evans, played with levity and liveliness despite the grimness of his situation.
Set design by Wellesley’s own David Towlun. He used old photography of Scott’s crew, and the sets spilled right out into the lobby with video and old news clips. Sparer than a typical Towlun set, in deference to the enormity that is Antarctica. Particularly cool World War I background graphic at the end.
Costume Designer Chelsea Kerl, who somehow made college students appear burly and thick.
Lighting Designer Graham Edmondson; Sound Designer George Cooke; Videographer Johnathan Carr; Stage Manager Jamie Zhang; Movement Coach Lian-Marie Holmes Monroe; Dialect Coach Charles Linshaw; Sound and Video Technician Grace Chin.