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The triumphs and tragedies of discovery – ‘Terra Nova’

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The triumphs and tragedies of discovery – ‘Terra Nova’ (photo courtesy UMaine School of Performing Arts)

ORONO – Our history books are filled with the names of those who were first, the intrepid figures who undertook the seemingly impossible in the name of exploration and discovery. But what about the names of those lost along the way?

That’s the underlying question of “Terra Nova,” the current show from the University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts. Written by Ted Tally and directed by Julie Arnold Lisnet and running through Feb. 20, it’s the story of the ill-fated British expedition to the South Pole. The race to be first was ultimately won by the Norwegians, but what these five brave men lost was not just the race to glory, but their very lives.

Adapted from the journals of Robert Scott, the leader of the British expedition, this is a story of what it means to sacrifice everything in the name of knowing the unknown. As these men struggle across a seemingly unending sheet of ice, we’re left to watch as their time slowly, inexorably ticks away. But even as all seemed lost, the one thing that these men never lost … was their courage.

In the early days of the 20th century, the people of the world were fascinated by its corners that remained as-yet unexplored. Captain Robert Falcon Scott (Peter Bacon) is one of the men dedicated to that exploration. After failing to win the race to the North Pole, Scott and those around him turn their eyes south. Far south. As south as one can go. The bottom of the world.

Despite the misgivings of his wife Kathleen (Mikki Gervais), Scott dedicates himself to undertaking this dangerous journey. He is driven by the purity of discovery, yes, but also by ego – he refuses to allow himself to be defeated by his rival, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (Connor Bolduc), who has assembled a team of his own – one whose methods are viewed with distaste by Scott and his peers.

With a handpicked team of four other men – Bowers (Peter Natali), Evans (Patrick Morris), Oates (Ethan Rhoad) and Wilson (Hagen Myers) – Scott endeavors to take the Pole, with the five men setting out on foot across hundreds of miles of blasted, frozen landscape, dragging their sled behind them.

Along the way, we’re given glimpses into Scott’s mind and memories. In these visions, he engages with Kathleen, showing us who he is when he can move beyond his single-minded dedication to this journey. He also has imagined conversations with Amundsen, wherein his interactions with his biggest rival show just how much he is willing to sacrifice to achieve his goal.

But as the men trudge across the endless ice, things begin to go wrong. They are slowed by circumstances and injuries and the elements, forced to deal with setback after setback as they struggle to find their way to that place where there is no direction but north. Ultimately, these brave explorers are left to deal with the reality that victory – and even survival – may be beyond their grasp.

(Full disclosure: I was in a production of “Terra Nova” myself, nearly 20 years ago – directed by Lisnet, no less – and it remains one of my most cherished theatrical experiences. The play means a lot to me and I have no doubt that that meaning influenced the impact this production had on me.)

“Terra Nova” is a story about what men may do when faced by insurmountable odds. About what happens when ordinary men are thrust into extraordinary situations. It is a tale of courage and of sacrifice and of the high cost of discovery – sentiments that this production delves into with nuance and bold delicacy.

Bearing witness to the deterioration of not just a dream but of the dreamers can be emotionally challenging, but Lisnet and her young actors prove more than able to capably guide us through those challenges. There’s a nobility at play here that is remarkable to experience, bringing forward the notion of what it truly means to push beyond our own perceived limitations and stride (or stumble) toward greatness.

Capturing that spirit is no easy feat, but Lisnet does so with passionate clarity. Her obvious affinity for this script and this story is omnipresent, leading to a production rife with an underlying passion that is an utter joy to experience, even within the bleakest of narrative contexts. What she does so well is bring forth the humanity of these men; in her hands, they are so much more than their deeds. This show works best when we’re less focused on the what and the how and more on the who and the why – the who and the why are what makes this piece (and this production) so compelling.

As you might imagine, this kind of performative weight is a lot to ask of any actors, let alone ones as relatively young as these. Yet they all prove up to the considerable challenge. Bacon leads the way as Robert Scott, a booming presence who also allows room for the moments of vulnerability that so humanize the intrepid explorer and strikes the necessary tonal balance deftly. The actors playing his team also prove skilled at finding their respective ways in – Natali’s gregarious good humor as Bowers and Rhoad as the gruff, tough Oates, the gentle desperation of Morris’s Evans and the quiet dignity of Myers as Wilson – and come together to capture the complicated bond of men together in danger. Gervais gives us sadness and a stiff upper lip, helping us see what it means to love and be loved by a man like Scott. And Bolduc, playing Amundsen as a whispering, wheedling voice in Scott’s ear, serving as both devil and angel on the man’s shoulder. This play demands a strong ensemble, and this production has one.

Visually, “Terra Nova” proves quite striking. There’s an emptiness to the stage that indicates the vastness of our setting; designer Katie Keaton has crafted a space that is both functional and evocative. She also designed the projections used throughout – best you see those for yourselves, but know that they are captivating in their own right. Lighting designer Nicholas Mierzejewski has a tough gig – sparse sets like this require sharp lighting work to shape the space – and handles it well. Alexis Foster’s costume design and J.P. Sedlock’s sound add the finishing touches, helping to bind it all together.

I have always been a proponent of the power of academic theatre and the opportunities for growth that it offers. “Terra Nova” is a distillation of that, a chance for young actors to explore through a story about exploration. This is a stark and sad tale, but a triumphant one as well, in its way – one well worth seeing. Just don’t be surprised when you feel the chill.

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 February 2022 11:18


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