First Stage Gets Lost in "Antarctica, WI"

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Antarctica, WI tries to cover a lot of ground. The world premiere production, co-commissioned by First Stage and Chicago’s Filament Theatre, has the best of intentions and a strong methodology. Based in part on interviews with Milwaukeeans following the 2016 Sherman Park riots, the play focuses on a diverse group of teens — black and white, gay and straight, guys and girls — who try to work together to address racial inequality and systemic violence. And every other difficult thing in their individual lives and the larger community. Even for 15 year-olds, that’s a tall order.

Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer uses the apt metaphor of a fracturing glaciers in Antarctica to show a world breaking apart and individuals being marooned on their own icebergs instead of being connected to a larger, cohesive group. Going further with the analogy, he suggests that the problems we see poking above the surface are only the highest points; there is also a mountain of trouble lurking below the waterline.

Alright. All good. Maybe the play is about urban violence and global warming.

But then this likable gang of sandlot baseball players and neighborhood friends splinters, and each inhabits his or her own social issues mini-play. There is a guy coming out to his grandfather. There’s a girl who wants to drop out of school, and a quirky, smart guy whose parents are never around. Adult neighbors squabble over a backyard fence and two young guys try to escalate a verbal confrontation to an all-out fight, one that pits cops against people of color.

There’s also a girl who doesn’t like attention and insists on wearing baggy clothes with long sleeves, even on hot August days. I had her pegged as a cutter, or perhaps anorexic, but it turned out she was just lonely.

Fortunately one of these enterprising youths saves the day for everyone. Lenny (an endearing Collin Woldt in the Berg cast) is the genius kid with all the answers. He gets everyone to cool down and talk through their problems. To consider the other side. To come back together. To disrupt a riot by playing a baseball game. And if that sounds like an unsatisfying ending, it is. But at least we finally know what the central conflict is in the play because we see it, not because the actors told us.

Yes, the other issue with this play-that-tries-to-do-too-much is that its lines are needlessly cluttered with eloquent narration and poetry. That’s great in an essay or a classical text, but when the cast of kids spends the first ten minutes of the show explaining, literally, what a protagonist is and which one of them will fill that role, it’s time to examine form and function. There is such a disconnect between the subject(s) of the play, the characters, and the erudite language that’s consistently used to tell rather than show, that it doesn’t serve audiences of young people or adults. Most problematic, it simply doesn’t serve the story.

Yu Shibagaki’s spare set design, consisting of a battered chain link fence, a photo projection of an open blue sky, and the ominously cracking sidewalk/icebergs, is not enough to make the play gel. Neither is the considerable talent of the cast and their director, Malkia Stampley.

Although the playwright couldn’t anticipate it at the time this was written, the only theme that really resonates in Antarctica, WI is that young adults are smarter and more powerful than we think. This is evidenced by the Parkland Florida high school students who survived a school shooting, then started a serious national conversation about gun control and mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to march against gun violence.

There is no question that tensions are rising nationally as well as locally, and that young people are being sucked into serious social issues, some in their own neighborhoods. There is also no question that for things to get better, we must keep finding ways to reach across a multitude of divides to exhibit understanding, compassion, and empathy. I hope that Antarctica WI has, at least, begun some of those conversations. And that they will continue.