The mind does strange things when the body is starved. Here it does strange, sometimes marvelous things when the soul is starved. Manfred Karge's poetic play—translated from German by Caron Cadle, Calvin MacLean, and Ralf E. Remshardt—shows the results of unemployment on the able-bodied metalworkers of Germany's Ruhr Valley. Neither political nor polemic, the highly stylized production gives us empathy for the workers and glories in the blessing that is our imaginations.
Indeed imagination is the cornerstone of the intelligent, engaging direction by Steve Pickering. Simultaneously whimsical and gut-wrenching, the evening unfolds in narrative, movement, kitchen-table dialogue, and the reconstruction of a South Pole trek as the workers attempt—in the best "let's put on a play" tradition—to reenact Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's Antarctic voyage of motivation, adaptation, and survival.
For lack of something else to do, the workers gather in the attic of the Braukmanns (Pickering, Dale Dickey). Buscher (Ben Shields) may be slightly illiterate, Seiffert "The Moose" (Christopher W. Jones) may be too philosophical, Slupianek (Rob Kahn) may have an overactive ego, and Braukmann an underactive one; each character is rich but far from overwritten, each performance far beyond "acting." Every expedition needs a trusty hound; the young, somehow disabled Frankieboy (Nina Sallinen, with wonderful mime) willingly role-plays.
With multiple roles played by Pat Caldwell, a brief but sturdy portrayal by Peter Blood as a pompous physician, outstanding sound design by Kevin Rittner, and original music by Kahn, the whole is seamed beautifully together, played out on a cluttered set (Travis Gale Lewis), lit in fireside warmth and polar freeze (Derrick McDaniel).Yes, the play gets a little heavy-handed, a little impenetrable. But to see these men delve into, well, theatre to feed their souls when pinball and schnapps no longer can, we may find ourselves gratefully sharing the journey and the joy.
"The Conquest of the South Pole," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (Also Sun. 3 p.m., Oct. 24; Nov. 7 & 28.) Oct. 2-Dec. 5. $12-25. (310) 477-2055.