Monday, June 23, 2014

Theater Review: Endurance -- Long Wharf

Greg Webster, Jason Bohon, Andrew Grusetskie, Michael Toomey. Photo:Dan Rousseau
Bold, Exciting Exploration on Leading During Crisis (and on How to Tell a Story)
By Lauren Yarger
A bold and exciting method of storytelling whisks us through leadership lessons learned and the triumph of the human spirit during adversity, regardless of the time, in Endurance at Long Wharf Theatre.

Split Knuckle Theatres dual tale of a modern insurance manager trying to weather the current economic downturn and of a turn-of-the-20th-century ship captain encouraging his men trapped by ice on their way to Antarctica, offers some of the cleverest and innovative storytelling we have seen on stage.

The show began at UConn and begins the summer season at Long Wharf and the theater group plans to make New Haven its home. Jason Bohon, Andrew Grusetskie, Christopher Hirsch and Slit Knuckle Artistic Director Greg Webster play all of the roles and tell the tales using a minimal number of props that are repurposed in effective and amusing ways.

At the fictional BMI Insurance Company in Hartford, Walter Spivey (Hirsch) and his coworkers dread the cutbacks they know are coming. In an unexpected twist, Walter gets promoted instead of being laid off, but feels unprepared to lead the team through the unrealistic goals set for them by upper management in the face of a hiring freeze and lack of resources available to complete a growing number of tasks.

In desperation, he turns to the business management section of the library, where he stumbles upon Endurance, a leadership manual (this part is true) by Ernest Shackleton who is credited with saving the lives of 27 men stranded with him on an Antarctic ice floe for almost two years. It was a different kind of freeze, but Walter finds some parallels for helping him lead his team.

Songs, precision movement and quick-change props, aided by exceptional lighting by Dan Rousseau, tell the two stories, which look for ways the human spirit can survive, even in the hardest of circumstances.

The ensemble members are all trained in method of collaboration and creation of French theatrical artist Jacques Lecoq, whose physical techniques inspired works like The 39 Steps, Peter and the Starcatcher  and War Horse. A table becomes part of a ship, a bucket being hoisted aboard The Endurance suddenly is a trash receptacle in the office. Ice threatening to sink the ship is conveyed in some movement and sharply designed sounds (uncredited, though Ken Clark designs the music). It’s ingenious as well as economical.

Amazing to me was the fact that 100 years and setting could be changed in the blink of an eye by a subtle lighting change or the flick of wrist.  The performers play characters as well as inanimate objects like a bathroom sink, an elevator or an alarm clock. The story is engaging and humorous – it’s part "Office Space," part National Geographic -- all amazingly staged into a thrilling 90 minutes without intermission.

The piece, devised and performed by Bohon, Grusetskie, Michael Toomey and Greg Webster, according to press information, has traveled the world. Split Knuckle formed in 2005 in London, beginning with an adaptation of John Steinbecks “The Pearl,” which received a 5 Star review from the Scotsman at  Edinburgh festival. Since that time they have traveled and performed in 19 different counties and across the United States.

Webster, a New Haven resident and University of Connecticut professor in Movement Theatre said Endurance was inspired by two things: a dream in which he saw a business man being swallowed by a photocopier, and his long admiration of the unique heroics of explorer Ernest Shackleton. These two ideas taken in tandem prompted a series of improvisations and exploration that resulted in the play’s beginnings at UConn. 

Working at a residency at UConn in 2008, Webster encouraged actors, musicians and writers to all be together in the rehearsal room at the same time, exploring different ideas using their respective disciplines. They would then improvise based on a theme, and writers would create scenes based on their improvisations. Playwriting here is credited to Nick Ryan.

The company is creating two new devised pieces, which will be released in the spring of 2015. For more information about Split Knuckle Theatre, visit

Endurance runs through June 29 at Long Wharf, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Tickets are $55 with student discounts available. 203-787-4282; 

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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