'Endurance'

'Endurance' (Long Wharf Theatre / June 6, 2009)

The show: "Endurance" at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

What makes it special?: A presentation by New Haven-based Split Knuckle Theatre.

First impressions?: Combine TV's "The Office" with a harrowing real-life adventure from The Discovery Channel and mix it with some very creative theater artists and you might get an inkling of what "Endurance" is all about. This young, inventive troupe that embraces vivid, physical theatrics and — using everyday objects in its fast-paced storytelling —- conjures a tale of two centuries of leaders facing insurmountable challenges.

One is polar explorer Sir Ernest Thomas Shackleton whose ship and crew faced disaster in a 1914 expedition in the Antarctic. The other is the fictitious middle-manager of a Hartford insurance company, Walter Spivey, who, in the middle of the financial crisis, reads Shackleton's journals and becomes inspired to save his employees' jobs. The depiction of the personal journey from being a manager best known as being "a pillar of personal hygiene" to the inspiring leader of tough men from a bygone era is done with imagination, humor and gusto, making the 90-minute show a theatrical adventure of its own.

How in the world do the two connect?: That's the fun part. The show eases us into the world of play as it cleverly shows Spivey waking up and going to work where he and his office colleagues face the threat of massive cutbacks and layoffs due to the financial crisis. Spivey (think Dilbert) is not only spared but promoted — but now is charged with overseeing a demoralized department forced to do more work for less money while execs get flush (sound familiar?).

Spivey knows he's in over his head so he seeks managerial advice at the library where he comes across Shackleton's journals and becomes transfixed with the captain's brilliant leadership skills under much more dire circumstances: trapped in ice at the ends of the earth.

The quartet of dazzling performers — Christopher Hirsh plays Spivey (and numerous other parts) and Greg Webster plays Shackleton (and others) — brilliantly create a world of corporate mad men — as well as a ship full of eccentric sailors. Jason Bohon and Andrew Grusetskie create more characters than I can count, with specificity and authenticity and without condescension or winking at the audience.

Enhanced by music (and presumably great sound design) by Ken Clark and lighting by Ken Rousseau, playwright Nick Ryan and company create twin tales that capture the anxiety, horrors, humor, resilience and triumphs of both worlds. The discovery in the end that the sailors and the suits are not so far apart is surprisingly transcendent.

Well, that's pretty heady. There must be some qualifications: Well, it's damn alpha. It would be interesting to see how the feminine point of view affects the theatrical dynamic. It would have added dimension to the storytelling — though, understandably, it didn't fit in with the Antarctic narrative.

Who will like it?: Theatrical explorers.

Who won't?: CEO bail-out bonus babies. But they don't go to the theater anyway.

For the kids?: A great way to show young people the wonder of theater. They will really connect to this physical, primal and very energetic show.

Twitter review in 140 words or less: "Frozen" meets "The Office" in a highly charged and highly entertaining theatrical experience.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: In two nights in a row, I witnessed a pair of terrific physically-charged productions in New Haven that blew the dust off conventional theater storytelling. First there was Elevator Repair Service's "Arguendo," as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, that depicted a Supreme Court case that could have been imagined by Lewis Carroll on steroids. Now comes Split Knuckle, another alpha-theater show that pushes the same-old aside and demands a piece of the theatrical turf. It's a one-two punch that gives you hope for a vital theatrical future, and one in which younger audiences (say under 60) will especially respond to.

The basics: The show plays through June 29 at Stage II at 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Information: www.longwharf.org, 203-787-4282.