Southward, ho!

Conquest of the South Pole

Deejay Arnold, Kevin Larsen and John Catching prepare for the chill of unemployment with an Antarctic expedition in<i> Conquest of the South Pole</i>.

Deejay Arnold, Kevin Larsen and John Catching prepare for the chill of unemployment with an Antarctic expedition in Conquest of the South Pole.

Rated 3.0

The Conquest of the South Pole is not an easy journey. This play about four frustrated, unemployed men is piled high with artistic quirks that make it challenging for audiences to embrace. Whether you sign up for this interesting expedition depends on your willingness to plow through the obstacles along the way.

German playwright Manfred Karge wrote Conquest in the late 1980s to reflect the hopelessness that descended upon Germans as their manufacturing and mining jobs were permanently lost. River Stage Artistic Director Frank Condon selected the play for this season’s opener because it reflects the dire mood of California youth today as they face their own uncertain futures.

The play opens to a stage as bleak as the subject matter—bare except a series of rolling gray pallets. Hanging from the ceiling in stark contrast is a mysterious scarlet curtain. Three young men in street clothes come tumbling and jostling onstage, riffing in a staccato manner, but stop short when they come across the curtain. Pulling it back, they find Seiffert, their depressed buddy, with a noose around his neck, ready to end it all.

In this instant, mate Slupianek realizes just how far this foursome has sunk. They are drowning in inertia and hopelessness. They spend days drinking and wandering, or as they so aptly put it: “pinball and schnapps, the end.” These are no slackers. There’s no glamour or waxing poetic about their situation. It’s a dead end with no outlet in sight.

So, Slupianek invents a novel way to give his gang everything they lack—courage, identity, challenges, goals and heroic successes. He pulls out the book he’s been reading—on the exploits of explorer Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole—and convinces the friends to re-create the journey.

Atop the laundry-lined rooftops, the four, along with a minor fifth friend, take turns reading the passages while acting out the adventure. They are constantly interrupted by real life, including buddy Braukmann’s increasingly frustrated wife. But they plug on—stealing jackets, learning how to cook explorer recipes and even imagining laundry as glaciers.

Karge’s concept is wonderfully imaginative. However, it’s the execution that’s difficult. The scenes are presented in shot scenarios, broken up by pounding German techno beats. The translated dialogue is written in strangely rhythmic and rhyming prose a la ’50s beatniks. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Sometimes the acting flows, sometimes not. But in the end, there’s no question it’s a fascinating journey.