At Stage West, the regional premiere of Mat Smart's The Royal Society of Antarctica is the coolest thing on ice.
by Jan Farrington | published Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Fort Worth — “She fell in love here. She found a family here. Maybe I can too.” At the bottom of the earth, a young woman comes back to the place she (and she alone) was born: the legendary McMurdo Station.
She’s looking for her mother—or rather, since her mother disappeared shortly after Dee’s birth in a white-out Antarctic storm, she’s looking for fragments, memories, insight. Even revelation, if she can find it.
Stage West’s regional premiere of Mat Smart’s The Royal Society of Antarctica is about life popping up—rowdy and irrepressible—in the oddest of places. It’s a play about families: our real ones, often broken, and the families (sometimes quirky) we choose along the way.
And its best laughs come from the real-life strangeness of the adventure: playwright Smart spent several months as a “jano” (janitor) at McMurdo. [Read TJ’s Q&A with Smart here; who knew this was a sought-after job?] Smart knows McMurdo’s offbeat social vibe: part frat party, part kindergarten, part wartime “buddy” movie. On “the Ice,” theme parties are a thing, and round-the-clock sunlight creates an odd psychological buzz—plus creative ways of measuring time.
Director Lee Trull nails both the humor and the off-kilter atmosphere, and Stage West’s cast of eight turns in some vibrant ensemble work—fresh, memorable, and full of faces new to this theater. After five minutes we have no trouble remembering who’s who; Smart’s portrait of each character is that vivid. Scientists, researchers, technicians—and the people who make the place run—are there to go all-in on a risky bet: that despite the danger, or because of it, Antarctica will change their lives.
Dee (Grace Montie in a true and heartfelt anchoring performance) takes to the people and place like a penguin. Open, straight-talking and eager, Dee is running from her Dad’s too-sheltering arms, and toward the memory of her wild and fearless mother. As first times away from home go, this one’s a doozy.
“Princess Dee” is adopted right away by a rag-tag group: wry, fatherly technician Tom (Michael Federico), who knew her parents; intense and snarky head “jano” Tim (Drew Wall), obsessed with toilets and McMurdo’s famous biscuits; Ace (Christopher Dontrell Piper), non-PC but hilarious as The Guy Who Can’t Stop Hitting On You; and friendly, sexy, boozy Tamara (Kelly Stewart), a “dining assistant” and bartender who cain’t say no, but kind of wishes she could. The only hold-out is stiff-backed, standoffish Pam (played to the hilt by Stage West head Dana Schultes) who, like Tom, was close to Dee’s parents. That, of course, makes Dee chase her all the harder, hoping Pam knows the answers to her questions.