Endurance Enthralls

Endurance is in its final weekend at Long Wharf Stage II. It might seem an unusual show to mount during a summer season—unless you’re in New Haven, where it fits in beautifully with the creative abandon and intellectual rigor of the theater offerings at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

Split Knuckle Theatre are a New York company recently transplanted to Connecticut. Some of the members teach at UConn, including Greg Webster, who now lives in New Haven. It’s thrilling to have a company like this in our midst. It’s clear that they’re having trouble drawing audiences out to Long Wharf in June, with so much else going on downtown. But seek them out for these final performances. Their show, Endurance, is all about making sure things get done, on the most satisfactory terms.

Satisfying is what this show is. It’s funny, smart, active, acrobatic, beautifully constructed, with timely themes and a Connecticut setting. Half of Endurance takes place in a Hartford insurance firm during the economic meltdown of a few years ago. The other half takes place a century or so ago as famed explorer Ernest Shackleton explores the Antarctic. A timid survivor of corporate downsizing in the Hartford scenes takes up Shackleton’s memoirs as a sort of self-help guide to effective leadership, directly linking these two tales of survival against insurmountable odds.

A four-person cast takes on all the roles in both ends of Endurance. They are so good at the quick-changes that you can scarcely recognize Greg Webster’s relaxed, Brit-inflected Shackleton against his sweaty, Boston-accented account guy Ben Brody.

The show makes numerous short, sharp points about how to maneuver the evils and unknowns of the world without losing your soul or your mind. It’s imaginative and thought-provoking at every turn. Watching a ballet of office paper-sorting morph into a heave-ho bout of sail rigging, with minimal props and scenery, will blow you away, chill you, bring you to both the cold of the Antarctic and the chilling realities of modern work life. The humor comes from the diverse characters and their funny voices, but also from well-studied Odd Couple-type parables of how opposites attract and different types of people can work (and sing and drink) together.

Interaction is the key to this show. It opens with poor Walter Spivey getting up and going to work, with actor Christopher Hirsch’s colleagues serving as his alarm clock and news radio. But these trappings fall away once Spivey is at the office. The men continue to transform themselves into props and imagined seaside or office-bound environments; but living, breathing humanity is essential to Endurance.  It’s about working together and making a difference. Which is why it ends up being such excellent summer entertainment.

The final performances of Endurance are June 27 at 8 p.m., June 28 at 3 & 8 p.m. June 29 at 2 p.m. The cast members, dressed as they are when portraying faceless corporate bureaucrats, make a personal plea for your support in the video above.

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