By Manfred Karge
Translated by Calvin McLean, Caron Cadle
& Ralf Remshardt
Directed by Kimberly Senior
At Strawdog Theatre Company
Dark comedy about the devastating effects of unemployment awaits
German playwright Manfred Karge’s 1986 dark comedy The Conquest of the South Pole, written in East Germany before the wall fell, vividly demonstrates the ill effects of long-term unemployment on a group of adult men. The translation by Calvin McLean, Caron Cadle and Ralf Remshardt aptly yields Karge’s penchant for poetic language as the first scenes contain verse-like dialogue. The work is quite in the Brechtian tradition of theatre which Karge respects dearly. He worked with Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s theatre troupe and he was sensitive to Brecht’s political critique. The Strawdog Theatre production is a spirited, often funny, journey of desperation with loads of heart.
With The Conquest of the South Pole, Karge has five unemployed adults so bored due to the tedium of not having their time filled with work, that they retreat to an attic where they role play being adventures by re-enacting Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole in 1910. Without ever leaving Braukmann’s (Tom Hickey) attic and lead by Slupianek (Jamie Vann), the group spends time and dresses in arctic gear while reading and acting-out Amundsen’s adventure.
Their lives are so filled with disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, that, in order to keep sane, the South Pole fantasy keeps them motivated and goal oriented. Their shared purpose sparks their imagination that makes white sheets into snow mounds and green tarps into tents. These simulations and their survival quest make living purposeful and fulfilling. Stupianek’s penchant for details and his unbending spirit keeps the group focused. Karge’s poetic language with its rhythmic sounds fuel the wildly antics and playful movements by these folks.
When Barukmann’s wife (Jennifer Avery) tries to keep her husband grounded in reality, she becomes frustrated. Her desire to get pregnant leads to a roll with Slupianek. The lives of the group change as some return to work and a life based on reality. But the journey continues leading to some violent encounters.
The work is filled with humor, wit and a child-like playfulness that engages us as the fantasy unfolds. Don’t we all, at times, want to escape our dreary lives by escaping into a fantasy adventure. Lead by the strong work from Jamie Vann with terrific turns by Tom Hickey, John Ferrick, Michael Dailey and Jennifer Avery, The Conquest of the South Pole is a provocative fable that looks into the effects of idleness on the adult psyche. The devastation turns upon the arrival of a rich acquaintance to a drunken party. This show is filled with manic performances that get to the heart of mood of these folks. The truthful ensemble work does justice to Karge’s work.
At Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, call 866-811-4111, www.strawdog.org, tickets $20, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, sundays at 4 pm, running time is 80 minutes without intermission, through May 28, 2011