Defeat is a dirty word in Strawdog’s puzzling ‘The Conquest of the South Pole’

Powerlessness. Mob mentality. Virtual worlds. Avoidance. Depression. Escape.

These are just a few of the themes explored in German playwright Manfred Karge’s subversively dark comedy The Conquest of the South Pole. Written before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Karge’s play looks at how the suffocating despair after losing one’s job in a depressed economy forces the redefining of one’s purpose in life, as preposterous as that purpose may seem.

It’s either that, or a noose around your neck.

These five men huddle in their upstairs “man cave” as they plot to re-enact Roald Amundsen’s 1910 trek to the South Pole — in an attic. White laundry becomes snow caps and glaciers, the clothing line doubles as mountaineering rope, one of the men (Joel Ewing) takes the role of a trusty sled dog. Role play, dominance and submission become the ground rules as the group navigates the imaginary crevasses and arctic tundra.

A leader eventually emerges — the bullish Slupianek (Jamie Vann). Always looking toward the end goal, he keeps his expedition crew in check when their focus begins to waver back into reality. Defeat becomes a dirty word. This becomes harder as his three comrades start finding work again — dead-end, soulless work, but work nonetheless. His virtual world consumes Slupianek’s reality.

Meanwhile, the wife of one of the men (Jennifer Avery) grows frustrated — both mentally and sexually — as her husband Braukmann (Tom Hickey) holes up in their attic playing make-believe. She takes action.

This is one vexing play, though well acted and solidly directed by Kimberly Senior. My theatre date described it best noting that while it didn’t immediately engage him (which I think has a lot to do with the highly stylized dialog, which may be an artifact of the play’s translation or perhaps Karge’s attempt at defining an insular culture for these men through their own language and wordplay), it’s certainly a play he will think about for some time. As will I. In fact, I think this is a play that I would like to read, as the characters say some rather arresting (and dense!) things about regaining control of one’s life when you’re a powerless victim of society — a feeling with which I think we all can relate.

“The Conquest of the South Pole” plays through May 28 at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N Broadway. More info here >

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