Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 28, 2015

Wade McCollum and Valeria Vigoda star in "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me," continuing through Oct. 4 at the Paramount MainStage
Wade McCollum and Valeria Vigoda star in "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me," continuing through Oct. 4 at the Paramount MainStage  

"Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" is a dreamlike journey into the frigid wasteland of romantic disappointment -- and a leap down the rabbit hole of the creative mind.

This 90-minute show focuses on single mother Kat (Valerie Vigoda, who also wrote the lyrics to the show's songs), who saws away at her electric violin and slaves over a hot synthesized all hours of the day and night, driving herself to exhaustion in a bid to support herself and her colicky infant on her musical compositions. (The baby is another reason she's sleep-deprived.)

On the verge of success with a new soundtrack to a video game, Kat is feeling a spark of hope -- something to warm her up a little in the confines of her Brooklyn apartment, which is so cold in the wintertime that she has to brush snow off her laptop. The show begins with Kay reflecting on her career thus far, which has been one long critical and financial pummeling. She doesn't say it -- she doesn't have to -- but her love life is in similar tatters.

Still, if she's about to score big with her video game work, why shouldn't Kay cling to hope in the romantic arena as well? She signs on to a dating site, and waits to see who will contact her. Lo and behold: Live from 1905 and Antarctica, it's Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum). How does she know this? Because he announces his name frequently, and with gusto: "I am Err-nest Shackleton!" What starts off as a staticky, windblown phone connections progresses to a Skype video-call and then an hallucinatory first date that shatters space and time by simultaneously taking place in Kat's apartment and the frozen environs near the South Pole. (The two stamp across glaciers and complete an 800-mile canoe trip in a matter of only 36 hours by the clock... considerably less time in reality, since the whole show takes about an hour and a half.)

Kat and Shackleton sing about adversity and courage; the famed explorer calls her his "muse," and offers salty, straightforward compliments along the libes of, "I'd like to throw you down and make mad, passionate love to you -- except my testicles are frozen to my leg." For all his machismo, however, Shackleton is a little perturbed by Kat's vulgar 21st-century vocabulary. She swears like a sailor, and it's a little shocking to him even though he is a sailor.

Still, Shackleton is eternally devoted to Kat, and when another famous adventurer turns up to challenge him for Kat's affections he's ready to defend her honor.

All this is a long way from Tipperary (as the two observe in song), and even further from the way Kat's boyfriend-slash-baby daddy Bruce (McCollum again) has treated her. Bruce is off on a bus tour with a Journey covers band, hobnobbing... as Kay discovers when she tries to phone him... with the band's slinky female massage therapist. Is this entire fantastical episode nothing but the result of exhaustion and stress? If so, you can certainly understand the why and the wherefore, as well as the setting and dramatis personae dreamed up by book writer Joe DiPietro. What girl wouldn't love to be romanced by a tall, sunnily confident Brit with an archetypal Stiff Upper Lip?

Both actors sing and perform, though most of the musical duties are shouldered by Vigoda. Her lyrics are sometimes wildly overwrought -- deliberately so, with elaborate verbal flourishes -- and the music, composed by Brendan Milburn, is often atmospheric, sometimes tender, and frequently rollicking. The staging is blend of hi-tech and minimalism; video screens and projections put us into Shackleton's historic ordeal and create a sense of wide-open spaces that are dark and blue with cold. It's immersive and mercurial, and a little bit like you imagine a play by performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson might be.

But unlike Anderson's work, there's nothing too abstruse about this production. This is probably the most cheerful musical out there about feeling abandoned and fearful. Kat's triumph over adversity begins when she conquers her doubts about herself and her abilities; you have to smile along with her as she puts on a brave face and finds her way with the light of her own optimism. Director Lisa Peterson wisely lets her two cast members turn on the charm full force. Ice packs crush ships, puppies die, heroes find themselves trapped with snowstorms sweeping, and all sorts of dire things happen -- but nobody on this stage is ready to give up.

"Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" continues through Oct. 4 at the Paramount MainStage. For tickets and more information please visit

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.