Stranded in an icy wasteland, their ship wrecked, supplies running out, morale perilously low: Split Knuckle Theatre’s “Endurance” compares corporate workers in today’s America to the men of a famously harrowing 1914-16 Antarctic expedition. Sounds about right.
But the play, now onstage at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, finds hope in the example of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led his crew to survival against staggering odds.
“He said, ‘Optimism is true moral courage,’ ” says Greg Webster, who plays Shackleton and is also the New York-based company’s artistic director. “I am an Irish Catholic, glass-half-empty kind of guy. So to transform myself into someone who is always looking on the bright side of life was an incredible learning curve for me.”
Troupe member Michael F. Toomey plays Walter Spivey, an insurance man in contemporary Connecticut who is justc trying to get through the workday in a darkly absurdist environment of corporate downsizing and impossible workloads. As Webster explains, “He’s kind of jumping between worlds in a Walter Mitty-esque [situation], thinking that he’s on the Endurance, having all these things happen.”
In a play whose bare-bones reality opens into grand imaginings, the cast of four — which also includes Jason Bohon and Andrew Grusetskie — become dozens of characters. A few pieces of office furniture double as ice floes and ship’s decks.
Webster found the seeds of the play in a dream he had several years ago. In it, Toomey stood atop a copier, struggling to escape a blizzard of paper. The next night Webster happened to see a TV special on Shackleton, who managed seemingly impossible feats to bring his men back alive after their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in pack ice and eventually sank. (Another New York theater company, Phantom Limb, brought its Shackleton-inspired piece, “69° S.,” to ArtsEmerson in February.)
Split Knuckle, which creates its plays collaboratively, began to improvise on Webster’s idea, contrasting Shackleton and his saga with the travails of office workers of the 21st century. But that was before the economy took a dive.
“Then Fannie Mae went under, and AIG went under, and I said, OK, we need to adapt and change just like Shackleton. This is what our play is about: the economic crisis and how people weather adversity,” Webster says.
“I have family members who lost jobs early on in the downturn. It was difficult,” Toomey says, noting that arts organizations were hardly immune to the troubles. “Some of the stuff we put in the show, things like running out of supplies, not knowing if we had jobs, not knowing if the company would survive, are part of our experience or our families’ experience.”
Shakespeare & Company estimates that it’s brought in an outside troupe for a run of performances perhaps only a dozen times in 35 years. Split Knuckle’s hookup came through Toomey, who has studied and worked at the Western Massachusetts institution on and off since 1998. In fact, he choreographed the fights for the current production of “King Lear.” After he told Shakespeare & Company artistic director Tony Simotes about “Endurance,” a 45-minute version of the play was a hit last fall at the Lenox theater’s Studio Festival of Plays.
Split Knuckle is a loose-knit organization formed in 2005, after Toomey, Webster, and several others met as students at the London International School of Performing Arts. The school is inspired by the work of Jacques Lecoq, the 20th-century French actor and teacher, who focused on physicality, movement, and continuing creative experimentation.
The name Split Knuckle comes from a line in John Steinbeck’s novella, “The Pearl,” an adaptation of which became the troupe’s first production. The moniker was definitely chosen to reflect their rough-and-tumble process, but no actual punches have been thrown. That, Toomey says with a laugh, is because Webster was a Golden Gloves fighter as a young man in Chicago.
“Light welterweight and welterweight,” Webster confirms.
Split Knuckle members tend to have other jobs, teaching and performing, so they’re looking forward to working on their next piece during their off hours in Lenox. It’s based on the story of Phineas Gage, who was a railroad worker on a rock-blasting operation in Vermont in 1848, when an explosion drove a tamping iron right through his head. The brain injury caused personality changes that made him an object of both scientific inquiry and popular curiosity.
There may be more rough and tumble ahead, then, for Split Knuckle, and after getting to know Shackleton, Webster is ready.
“The study of him helped me to understand what’s really necessary when you lead people, what they need to see to be inspired to work for you,” Webster says. “As an artistic director, that’s a challenge I have all the time.”
Company One unveils lineup
Company One’s 14th season travels from the Occupy Boston encampment to the Middle East and beyond, all without leaving the Boston Center for the Arts.
First up is the world premiere of “No Room for Wishing,” Sept. 13-22, a one-man “documentary piece” about the Occupy movement, written and performed by Danny Bryck and featuring the words of Dewey Square protesters. The show at the Plaza Black Box Theatre will be produced in collaboration with Central Square Theater, where it will move Sept. 30-
Four other plays will have their New England premieres in the BCA Plaza Theatre.
A dark Broadway comedy set in war-ravaged Iraq, Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” runs Oct. 19-Nov. 17, directed by Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount. “You for Me for You,” by Mia Chung, about two North Korean sisters trying to escape to the United States, plays Jan. 18-Feb. 16, 2013, under the direction of M. Bevin O’Gara.
“She Kills Monsters,” a geeky comedy-adventure by Qui Nguyen of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Vampire Cowboys theater troupe, plays April 12-May 11, 2013, and Idris Goodwin’s “How We Got On,” a coming-of-age hip-hop “mix tape” set in the 1980s, runs July 19-Aug. 17, 2013. In addition, XX Playlab, devoted to female playwrights, will offer a weekend of readings of new plays by Kirsten Greenidge (“The Luck of the Irish”), Lydia R. Diamond (“Stick Fly”), and Natalia Naman in March 2013.
Joel Brown can be reached at