Eight people—scientists, engineers, soldiers—head to the South Pole for the winter in 1986. This is the simplest synopsis of Magellanica, the nearly six-hour play by Oregon’s E.M. Lewis. Artists Repertory Theatre wants you to “binge-watch” it, which I begrudgingly admit is accurate terminology.
Winter is dark at the South Pole, where there is “one sunrise and one sunset a year.” The aurora australis lights the sky in green streaks; one scientist is there to study that. Two climatologists attempt to prove or disprove the existence of a hole in the ozone layer. Two people fall in love, one attacks another, one tries to write a book, one wants to make “a new and accurate map of the world.” One’s a Norwegian ornithologist waiting for summer, when he’ll head to an island of “only penguins and French people. Mostly penguins.” Over eight months of winter, each will try to keep themselves and each other alive, and eventually—sure—try to save the world.
Sara Hennessy and Michael Mendelson play the climatologists, she American and he Russian, as they bicker over who—and whose country—has the right to conduct research on climate change, and what that research proves. But Lewis knows what the audience knows: There is a hole in the ozone layer, humans did make it, and 30 years later, the world still needs saving. The argument eventually evolves into one of how to present the truth to a public unwilling to acknowledge it.
The ornithologist, Lars (Eric Pargac) is writing three books. One’s a secret, but another is a children’s book about penguins. In one of the play’s funniest and most moving scenes, he tells his children’s story entirely in Norwegian, waddling maniacally around the stage, enlisting the other characters as actors in a story they delightedly struggle to understand.
It’s tempting to call kind, hilarious Lars the heart of the play. It’s tempting to say that of every character. In the first act, they’re all set up fairly one-dimensionally: sweet Scandinavian goofball, shut-off grieving American, obstinate Soviet curmudgeon, traumatized veteran leader, affable drifter handyman, American immigrant wunderkind, adorable old mapmaker, extremely British asshole. By the third act, those descriptions barely begin to encapsulate the characters. After the first act, I liked hating Joshua Weinstein’s permasneer as English scientist William Huffington so much I actively hoped he wouldn’t be redeemed. By the third act, I wanted to rock him peacefully to sleep in my arms.
Barbie Wu plays May Zhou, a science prodigy driven by a compulsion to impress her demanding parents. It’s a trope-y model-minority characterization that quickly becomes something deeper, specific to the character and the situation, as May grows attached to ailing Bulgarian cartographer Todor Kozlek (Allen Nause). Kozlek’s “new and accurate map of the world” quickly spins into a swimmy, feverish, at least four-dimensional record that’s more of knowing the world than the known world. Where Wu’s every movement is an articulation of anxious energy and fear of wasted potential, Nause wanders the stage with a graceful, balletic bewilderment in the face of a boundless yet finite world.
Vin Shambry and John San Nicholas round out the cast as the non-scientists. John San Nicholas is another dark horse contender for heart of the show—a late monologue places his character Freddy “on the edge of important.” San Nicholas is also the only actor who can always read Lewis’ sometimes-purple soliloquies completely naturally, with the amiable tragedy of someone who genuinely doesn’t believe his story quite matters, but is wrong. Vin Shambry, meanwhile, flexes his musical theater muscles as the expedition’s captain, a guitar-toting Vietnam vet reluctant to lead. His role is tough—the play doesn’t quite justify how fast his romance starts, but Shambry sells it regardless.
That a nearly six-hour play can have a plot line that feels rushed is a testament to just how much is packed into Lewis’ script—that it can have just one is proof of her deftness. The play’s not “about” climate change, language, or even love, but might be distilled to take on, as cartographer Todor puts it, “the job of [answering the] question of lostness.” Characters claim that Antarctica has “no history” or “no nature.” But nature and history, like most words, are synonyms for story. Send a soldier, send a daughter, send enemies in a cold war—send a writer and a cartographer, especially—and you’ve got a story spilling over its lengthy runtime like a map running past its bounds. Every act break might as well be a Netflix screen: “Are you still watching Magellanica?” And even after the curtain call, the answer is an easy yes.