by Jeff Grygny
The world can seem like a pretty cold place to a struggling artist. It sure feels that way to Kat, a 40-something avant-garde composer who plays “for a hundred hipsters who only come to show how hip they are.” Her money has run out, her baby is crying, and his skeezy absent dad is giggling on the voicemail with a younger women. Kat is the protagonist of the improbably-titled Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the offbeat, inspirational musical currently playing at Skylight Music Theatre. In its unflagging determination to give encouragement through impossible difficulties, the show hits like a shot of adrenaline directly to the heart.
The psychologist Carl Jung taught that archetypal figures appear to us in dreams and visions to assist us on the way to becoming our true selves, a process he called “individuation.” The concept has featured in storytelling from Homer to the Simpsons. This particular iteration fully embraces the digital age: Kat’s visitation by the famed early 20th century adventurer first appears—no kidding!—on her smartphone’s dating app. It’s not the only high tech on tap: A giant screen shows us Kat’s cell phone display, and in her opening number she demonstrates how she uses digital sampling and an electric violin to create intricately layered symphonic compositions, while simultaneously drawing a vivid picture of her life on the edge. Now, maybe there are lots of electric violinists who can sing, act, and perform live sampling—who knows how many young musicians Laurie Anderson has inspired? But it’s hard to imagine anyone better for the role of Kat than Janice Martin, who wears her futuristic instrument like a part of her body and plays it like an extension of her soul. In her opening number, Martin must prove that Kat is a born artist, with no other place in the world than to make music. And this she does, in a tour-de-force display of virtuosity.
Before you can say “mush,” Kat is off on a dreamlike expedition with the Arctic explorer. The versatile Matt Daniels bites into the titular role with the gusto of a starving man relishing his first mouthful of seal blubber—which is to say, he’s bold, dashing, and relentlessly gung-ho in the face of the absolutely horrible mishaps of his two-year voyage to the South Pole, in which his ship is crushed by icebergs, his crew stranded in a polar wasteland, he travels 800 miles in a rowboat, survives a hurricane, scales a freezing glacier, and, after three years, manages to return home with all 22 of his crewmates. The trials of enduring a global pandemic, wearing as they are, seem pale in comparison. Daniels knows he’s playing, not a real human being, but Kat’s idealized masculine side: strong, tender, supportive, and enchanted by every bit of her— even her Pippi Longstocking pigtails. Not like the failson jerks in her life—whom Daniels also plays in satirical caricatures.
Director Jill Anna Ponasik wisely gives us no intermission (did Shackleton get fifteen minutes to have a drink? I think not.) She brings her usual (and much missed) kinetic imagination to the 90 propulsive minutes, as Martin and Daniels act out Shackleton’s harrowing journey with crates and ropes as props, like kids playing make believe, but with an urgency that gives the fantastical events just the right amount of emotional truth. Every song, from electro-pop to sea chanty, pumps us full of never-say-die optimism. It might have seemed seem a bit much, but after our collective experience of the past two years, it feels like just what we needed, and Ponasik and company know it. Much credit also goes to the design team: Scott Davis’ scenery, Jason Fassl’s lighting, and Patrick W. Lord’s video design transform the Cabot stage into both Kat’s Brooklyn loft and a palpable Arctic tundra, with lots of projections of footage that was, incredibly, shot by one of Shackleton’s own crew.
Some say that what makes a hero is the simple ability to persevere when most folks would have given up. So the next time you curse while digging your car out of the snow in minus 10 wind chill, remember Ernest Shackleton, tossed on 20 foot waves in a rowboat in the freezing ocean hundreds of miles from land. He made it; you probably will too! Be safe!
Skylight Music Theatre presents
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Book by Joe DiPietro
Lyrics by Val Vigoda
Music by Brendan Milburn
playing through February 6
HEALTH & SAFETY PROTOCOLS
“Skylight Music Theatre has joined other Milwaukee performing arts organizations in requiring proof of vaccination or negative Covid test within 72 hours of performance for all audience members ages 12 and up. In addition, Skylight requires audiences to be masked at all times while indoors, regardless of vaccination status. For up-to-date information, please visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org/health.”