Ted Tally’s TERRA NOVA (presented by the Flat Earth Theatre @ Arsenal Arts Center through Feb. 28th) is one of those dark plays of substance, wherein white men prove their mettle by invading or climbing or discovering someplace where “no one has been before.” (Of course they mean no one with pale skin.) The “new territory” in Tally’s play is Antarctica. Poor Captain Scott of the British Royal Navy: He thought the frozen landscape could be claimed for England. Then a Norwegian beat him to it.
That’s all you need to know. The rest is soul searching, some flashback scenes and a great deal of hallucination. I can clearly see why a company of men would love to get their game on with TERRA NOVA. It has lots of juicy parts and oodles of hazards for the actors to negotiate. And the company delivers. National pride, moral rectitude and colonialism all take a righteous hit from Tally: Dying for what you believe in isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Captain Scott (Chris Chiampa) thinks, dreams and breathes his competition, so much so that Amundsen (Samuel Frank) appears to him in his imagination, taunting him each step of the way. Believe it or not, Scott’s men marched on foot for 1600 grueling miles where Amundsen took along dogs to haul his sleds (and then be slaughtered for food when provisions ran out). Amundsen dismisses Scott’s contention that the Norwegians have engaged in unsportsmanlike behavior: “There’s nothing more dangerous, Amundsen says, “than a man of good intentions.”
The one female role in TERRA NOVA is Scott’s wife, deftly portrayed by Kamela Dolinova. When he turns his thoughts to her, Scott softens and we see his restless, vulnerable side. Chiampa summons bouts of bluster to cover up his fears, where Frank as his rival towers over the Brits, physically and metaphorically.
Director Jake Scaltreto gets lovely ensemble work from his cast. Each man in Scott’s expedition is fully drawn so that we feel we know them individually. James Hayward is the principled physician on the team. Kevin Kordis is the hothead. Robin Gabrielli is so loyal to Scott and England that he makes a foolish sacrifice to keep them on track and an impish Matt Arnold always has a quip to ease another’s suffering. If only there were more evocative plays like TERRA NOVA for a company of women! (Please don’t recommend ON THE VERGE to me. I’m afraid I think it’s deadly.)