Famous Door Theatre Company

at Jane Addams Center Hull House

On a tenement rooftop in the sinking industrial town of Herne, four unemployed workers puzzle over the concept (and the pronunciation) of ennui, a strange disease that attacks “unemployed millionaires.”

“They don’t even want to work,” marvels a gentle wreck named Seiffert. “I want to, and I can’t!” Seiffert wants work so badly, in fact, that he has difficulty articulating the very word and is prone to halfhearted suicide attempts.

It seems a strange setting, at first, for a piece called The Conquest of the South Pole, but in German playwright Manfred Karge’s vision, bottomless crevasses have nothing on the horrors of the unemployment office. Karge’s four protagonists are more likely to find the South Pole on their rooftop in Germany than they are to find gainful employment; so it makes perfect sense that, at the prompting of their aggressive unofficial leader Slupianek, they decide to reenact Roald Amundsen’s 1911 expedition. Amid lines of snowy laundry on the roof, they struggle against impossible odds and revel in displays of courage that the mundane circumstances of their actual lives make all but impossible. They are heroes.

Heroic too is Famous Door’s Chicago premiere of this difficult script, superbly translated by Ralf Remshardt, Caron Cadle, and director Calvin MacLean. In this staging, clean and sharp as surgery, Slupianek (Phil Johnson), Seiffert (Tracy Letts), the henpecked Braukmann (Dan Rivkin), and the bully Buscher (Paul Dillon) shift from almost elegant prose to savage doggerel as easily as they swing from the laundry line strung high above the set. The production abounds with verbal as well as physical acrobatics, and sometimes a kind of Zen-like wit. “Why can’t a camel ride a bike?” the comrades sing. “Because he’s got no thumb to ring the bell!”

Accompanied from time to time by Braukmann’s pragmatic wife (Elaine Rivkin) and a slavish, stuttering sidekick (played by James Schneider in a manner heavily suggestive of Lucky from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot), the group seeks more than just survival. They seek escape from grim circumstances, embarking on their imaginary quest with all the enthusiasm of children and the desperation of adults in a no-win situation. Robert G. Smith’s rooftop set features hidden slides, surprise doors, swinging ropes, and cubbyholes–a playground that’s nevertheless shadowed and dangerous, likely to harbor broken glass.

“Man is nothing but defeat,” Buscher snarls, tiring of the game after discovering that Amundsen’s party actually fell just short of the pole. “We can play the defeats,” he says. “They’re our daily bread.” Even if they play at reaching the pole in a burst of optimism, it’s back to the dole on Monday–which proves too much for some of the heroic party. As compellingly played by Letts, the thoughtful, panicked Seiffert has a galvanizing moment of humiliation and terror when he finds himself suddenly snow-blind in an unemployment office, no way out as far as he can see.

Johnson as Slupianek is a charismatic leader of men who have nothing better to do than make-believe, and as the grungy Buscher, Dillon displays a canny sense of physical comedy. Rivkin’s Braukmann, appropriately, looks as though he’s constantly fighting back tears, and Elaine Rivkin acquits herself well from within a pair of fishnet stockings and a corset. (Why must good actresses eternally fall prey to costume designers more interested in lingerie than character? Would a woman really run a snack shop wearing high heels and a corset?) And Schneider makes a superb sled dog.

Hope, energy, and imagination fire this surreal, despairing tale of psychological survival.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.