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Terra Nova: A Testament to the Arts at YU

Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole ended in abject failure, but Yeshiva College Drama Society’s production of Terra Nova ended Thursday night in triumph.

The play follows Scott’s ill-fated race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen for the chance to be the first man on the bottom of the earth: the place where “every direction is north.” Scott first attempted to conquer the South Pole in 1901, but didn’t reach magnetic south. He tried a second time, in 1910, docking his ship, the Terra Nova, off Ross Island. This time, however, Scott was racing the Norwegians. He, manhauling supplies 1,600 miles, they, sliding across the snow on dog sleds.

“Playing the game means treating your dogs like gentlemen and your gentleman like dogs,” the calculating Amundsen tells Scott, in one of the play’s many moments of imagined head-clashes between the two explorers. Amundsen will eat the dogs for protein, while Scott plays by the rules: “One doesn’t cease behaving properly simply because one is entering the wilderness.” Though his insistence on decency eventually dooms the exploration, his civility earns him post-mortem fame.

Historically, Scott’s expedition was ill-planned, to say the very least. Stereotypically British, Scott refused every technique employed by his artic-native rivals. To haul supplies to depots along the route with his 67-man support team, Scott employed ponies, perhaps the most ill-adapted animal to Antarctica. His inadequate rations were also vitamin B and C deficient, robbing the five men of the exploration party of energy after reaching the pole. He failed to mark the depots with adequate signaling and so ran out of fuel and supplies. He rejected skis, dogs, and furs. The expedition—driven by reckless gallantry and upper class pride—was doomed from the start. (To illustrate just how gentlemanly the men were, consider that the expedition’s doctor George Levick noted penguins’ autoerotic tendencies, but wrote all of his observations in Greek to prevent them being seen by the wrong set of eyes).

Ted Tally’s screenplay, drawn from journals and letters recovered from Scott’s frozen body, begins midway through Scott’s descent to the pole. The men express concern that one of their number, Evans, seems to be hiding a wound. As the wound starts to fester and becomes frostbitten and infected, the expedition itself begins to collapse. The men barely reach the South Pole and manage only to take a picture before turning back in a desperate attempt to survive.

The screenplay follows the emotional arc of the men—at first jovial at the prospects of being the first to the pole, then beleaguered by Evan’s wound, then dejected after finding that the Norwegians had beat them (they left a note), then exhausted from depleting rations, and, finally, delirious from hypothermia. Dread and fatigue defeat our noblemen. Seizing the sweeping emotions of this play possesses a considerable challenge in its own right. Yet David Khabinsky deftly captures Scott’s fixation on planting the union jack at the bottom of the world, manifest in his bullish push South. But Khabinsky also manages to capture Scott’s inner turmoil—his tortured alter ego embodied in his arch-rival Amundsen and his knotty and tender relationship with his young wife Kathleen.

As Scott sinks in and out of daydreams of his wife and nightmares of Amundsen, he struggles to diligently care for the men under his command: Dov Adelson, a YCDS veteran, plays the Gaston-like war hero Oates, while Michael Fridman plays the gentleman doctor. Aviran Cohen plays the idealistic but shortsighted Evans, while Shaya Lazarous provides much needed comic relief as boisterous Birdy Bowers.

Despite their thin British accents, the men manage to tie together a play that requires acting dexterity; one minute the men laughingly sing cadences from the Boer War, and the next minute tragedy strikes. Aviram Cohen’s mesmerizing performance of Evans’ psychological breakdown was surprising given that this was the actor’s debut. The theater sat transfixed as Cohen skillfully rendered Evans’ ever-descending emotional and physical collapse, from his reticence in the face of the festering frostbitten wound to his eventual death from exhaustion and infection.

Yoni Greenberg plays Amundsen, Scott’s stoic, well-prepared, no-nonsense Norwegian rival. Amundsen, appearing to Scott in flashbacks and imagined meetings, prods his conscience and goads his resolve. Greenberg delivers an exceptional performance—his words delivered in a meticulously measured rhythm, his acting controlled and cold—dovetailing perfectly with the personality of his character. In the most dramatic moments between Greenberg and Khabinsky, their acting interlocks in a seamless and gripping tête-à-tête. Audiences would not be surprised to learn that these two gems of YCDS are, in fact, roommates.

YCDS follows the meticulously detailed maritime set for last semester’s production of Mister Roberts with an icy landscape that vividly suggests the punishing purity of the Antarctic wilderness. As always, YCDS pays particular attention to props. The wooden sled pushed by the mitted men holds pewterware, tins, and a period-perfect portable stove no doubt acquired in an antique shop. The production cued in various sounds, of the howling wind and of songs—and a complex light scheme—with precision.

Netanel Shafier’s now legendary sets have always been detailed, if not literal. But in this production, his bleached-white set morphs into metaphor. During one of Captain Scott’s hypothermia-induced hallucinations, the set calls for the sled to become the scene of a Parisian bistro where the tuxedo wearing men order Pieds paquets and Poulet à la bretonne. Instead of following the simple stage directions, however, Shafier created an ephemeral dream space above the set, behind a translucent sheath. Despite the haze created by the sheer, Shafier’s enriching effect heightens the heartbreak of the moment—the restaurant is of course but a dream—and stands as a testament to his deep understanding of the complex play. When the sheath is later saturated with lambent aurora australis, the southern lights, one wonders when—not if—the talented set designer will find his stage downtown.

It would be tempting to place credit on the maturation of YCDS’s best actors, to Khabinsky or Adelson’s weathered acting. But this performance was also carried by a number of fresh faces—a propitious sign for YCDS’s future. “Whose life did you enrich?” Kathleen demands of Scott midway through the play. “My own,” he responds. But in YCDS’s most recent production Scott’s mission also enriched every member of the audience, and thereby, the state of the arts at Yeshiva University.