October 29, 2004




In 'South Pole,' workers frozen by broken spirits


Manfred Karge's extraordinary political parable is bleakly effective at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, and more.


"We're all South-Poled out," Braukmann (Steve Pickering) says to his wife (Dale Dickey) late in Manfred Karge's extraordinary if ungainly political parable "The Conquest of the South Pole." He's trying to assure her the odd pastime he and his buddies have been pursuing in his attic--reenacting Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's 1911 polar journey--is winding down.


We may share Braukmann's exhaustion by this point, but that is no doubt Karge's aim: to put us in the funk alongside these "unemployees" in a small, depressed German mining town in the 1980s. These stiffed workers' malaise is so deep, Karge suggests, that they feel as lost and snow blind as men on aSisyphean search to find the center of an unpopulated block of ice.


Leading this cloudy vision quest is Slupianek (Rob Kahn), a firebrand with an often wrenchingly quixotic intensity. Along for the ride are pent-up Buscher (Ben Shields), strapping Seiffert (Christopher W. Jones) and near-mute Frankieboy (Nina Sallinen). The journey's high point is a rousing sledge ride, play-acted with a table, chairs, ragtag costumes and hand-held lights.


The ostensible climax is a tense, drink-fueled party with a crude, condescending boss (Peter Blood) taunting the workers and his jittery blond wife (Pat Caldwell). Here the play's Brechtian undertones, previously played for queasy laughs, come blazing out in earnest.


Pickering's bold, often blunt direction extracts the most from this strange brew, and the design is stunning top to bottom--literally, in the case of Travis Gale Lewis' ramshackle expanse of a set. Kevin Rittner's sweeping sound design likewise feels as large and cheerless as the tundra.

-- Rob Kendt


"The Conquest of the South Pole," the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays (except 3 p.m. Nov. 7, 14 and 28). Ends Dec. 12. $20.50 to $25. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.