For arts sake

New Theatre Company's Conquest of the South Pole plays to a crowd of none

This production poses for the umpteenth time the hoary philosophical question, "If a tree falls in the woods, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?"

It's not the play itself that's directly concerned with this conundrum, however. Rather, it's the fact that the play is being performed before virtually no one. At a recent Saturday evening performance, there were only two people in attendance, myself included.

Dramatic performances are ephemeral enough as it is, even when witnessed by a standing room-only crowd. Do they etiolate to the point of meaninglessness when there is no one there to see them?

There are two schools of thought on that subject. One says it's pointless and even ridiculous for actors to spout their lines into the empty air unreceived. The other says that art should go on even if it takes place in a vacuum. Most of us will never see a Bengal tiger in the forest, adherents of the second school point out, but it's good to know they are there nevertheless.

Those who are bucked up by the thought that there are actors somewhere in the tucked-away recesses of the Metroplex thrashing out obscure plays on small stages before rows of empty seats can take heart. The New Theatre Company is doing just that at the Swiss Avenue Theater, an easy-to-miss space quartered a stone's throw east of Deep Ellum.

Its performance of The Conquest of the South Pole marks the play's third American production, the first in the Southwest. A German work in English translation written by contemporary author Manfred Karge, it enjoyed a two-year run in Chicago before catching the eye of New Theatre Company artistic director Bruce Coleman.

The play's German origin is enough to give canny theatergoers pause. From a British play you might expect wit or at least good craftsmanship. From a Latin or South American play you might expect emotional heat. The French, though useless in most other ways, can usually deliver a little charm or sex. But the Germans, God help 'em, are generally as leaden in literature and drama as a Panzer tank.

That's pretty much the case here. The story concerns four hapless fellows who are languishing about in an attic. They are at the point of despair and even suicide because joblessness has robbed them of a sense of purpose. To combat their angst and ennui they decide to emulate a turn-of-the-century Norwegian expedition to the South Pole. The Žlan and because-it's-there spirit of the polar explorers inspire them.

Their game becomes an obsession, and they go so far as to study the habits of sleigh dogs, steal exploring equipment from a local store, and read up on how to prepare pemmican, all in order to bring verisimilitude to their fantasy. The attic becomes Antarctica, with tables substituting for sleighs and white bedsheets on a laundry line substituting for sheets of ice.

Conflicts arise when one of the "explorers" rebels and wants to forsake the Norwegian expedition to follow the course of a similar British expedition to the pole that did not meet with success. His point seems to be that since their jobless lives are goalless, they should imitate an expedition that did not reach its goal, either. The group's visionary, Slupianek, insists on adhering to the original mission, since he views success, even if only imaginary, as vital to the group's well-being.

It strains credulity to the breaking point to think grown men would indulge in these kinds of antics, of course. Still, audiences are perfectly willing to roll with just about any premise provided it's sustained by humor, imagination, or sharply observed characterization. The problem with the play is that it lacks sufficient doses of any of these. There are few, if any, clues as to what animates these people; who they are, where they come from, and what their point of view is. Why are these characters so enervated by unemployment? What did they do when employed that gave them the satisfaction they now lack?

These questions are not explored, and it is not until the second act and the introduction of two auxiliary characters that we meet anyone with a distinct personality or agenda. The rest of the play is taken up by either abstract and rather tedious minutiae regarding polar exploration, or by a directionless series of discussions regarding the characters' disaffection and depression. It doesn't help that the play lacks a linear plot and is presented in a series of loosely tied-together vignettes, or that the actors speak in a distracting amalgam of German and Eastern European accents.

The pathos generated by The Conquest of the South Pole arises merely from the fact that it is a marginal work being performed for next to no one by talented and committed actors. Jim Jorgensen is particularly good as Slupianek, the group's guiding force. His striking bald pate, goatee, and slender, sinuous form exudes an ambiguous charm, as he is both caring and conniving in achieving his goal. The glint of fanaticism in his eye coupled with a seductive smile makes him the most watchable actor on stage.

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