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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: January 24, 2018

Rumford mill workers set off on an imaginary voyage in ‘Conquest of the South Pole’

Written by: Bob Keyes

Ashanti Williams, Cullen Burke, Eric Darrow Worthley and Ian Carlsen star as unemployed Rumford mill workers in “Conquest of the South Pole.”
Photo by Lauren Lear/Lauren Lear Photography

Margit Ahlin and Al D’Andrea were in Edinburgh with a hit on their hands during the 1988 theater season. Their show was selling out every night, and they were having a ball with their success.

During the day, they filled their free time by catching other shows.

“The big theater was the Traverse Theatre, and the show we went to see was ‘Conquest of the South Pole’ starring this guy named Alan Cummings, who no one had ever heard of,” Ahlin said. “It was brilliant – theatrical and Brechtian, with lyrical, beautiful language. It was tough and punkish and really alive. We said, ‘We’ve got to do this someday.’ ”

Three decades later, someday finally arrived. Cummings has since achieved major fame, and “Conquest of the South Pole” has become a popular and widely produced play around the world.

Ahlin and D’Andrea’s Portland-based theater company, Snowlion Rep, presents a version of “Conquest of the South Pole” beginning this week at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater. They adapted the play for Maine, setting it in Rumford with four unemployed mill workers leading the action. Desperate for a break from their bleak reality, they re-enact in a crowded attic the first expedition to the South Pole, led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The guys recreate the voyage, using discarded furniture and hanging sheets as their props, as a way to face and conquer their own beleaguered situation.

It tells the stories of the lives of these young men, out of work and running low on hope. The best parts of their day are the pinball machines and beer. They turn to their imaginations to transport themselves to a new kind of reality.

The idea of setting the play in Rumford was a coincidence. “While we contemplated this play, we kept hearing about mill workers being laid off in Jay, mill workers being laid of Bucksport. We chose Rumford because there’s something about the western foothills. Rumford just seemed like the right kind of company town,” Ahlin said.

The play stars Cullen Burke, Ian Carlsen, Hal Cohen, Natasha Salvo, Maergen Soliman, Caleb Streadwick, Ashanti Williams and Eric Darrow Worthley.

D’Andrea directs. “I have directed a lot of shows during the course of my career, and I can say there are a select few plays that I have seen where I say, ‘I have to direct this.’ This was one of those plays,” he said.

The German playwright Manfred Karge wrote the play. Karge was a student of Bertolt Brecht, an influential theater artist from Germany in the early 20th century. When he saw the play all those years ago, D’Andrea was struck by the movement and energy of the language. “Brecht has always been one of my truly great influences as a writer and director,” he said. “This play is alive with a lot of that same energy.”

Snowlion Repertory Company’s “Conquest of the South Pole”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1-3 and 2 p.m. Feb. 4
WHERE: Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave., Portland
HOW MUCH: $20
INFO: 518-9305, snowlionrep.org

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