'MAGELLANICA' IMMERSED IN POLITICS, LOVE, HISTORY
About 30 years ago, the world was waking up to the belief, theory and then reality that the ozone layer had a big hole in it, caused by manmade chemicals, and Ellen Lewis remembers the time well.
"It was the central scientific question of the day and the implications were huge," says Lewis, who goes by "E.M." in her professional playwriting career. "And now I'm thinking there was some connection with what we we're facing then and the problems we're facing now regarding climate, and what we did right and wrong then and what we can do right and wrong now."
A team of scientists gathered in Antarctica to confirm the hole in the ozone layer. And Antarctica has always interested Lewis, partly because of the stories of Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton and others trying to explore the continent.
So, being a playwright, about eight years ago Lewis set out to write a play about the scientists, Antarctica and the ozone layer. A truly epic product, "Magellanica," was the result, and it'll finally be debuted at Artists Repertory Theatre, Jan. 20-Feb. 18, as part of the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works.
It's nearly six hours long, split into five stories that tackle issues of political, social and scientific urgency.
The best part about an Oregon world premiere of a play that has already been highly regarded is that it's been written by a playwright from our state. Lewis was born in the small town of Monitor, attended Silverton High School and Willamette University and, after attending USC for graduate school and living in New Jersey (and working at Princeton on a fellowship) and Los Angeles (and working at USC), she has returned to live on the family farm in the Willamette Valley.
Lewis doesn't shy away from the reason she wrote "Magellanica." It addresses climate change. Last year, upon her return to Oregon, she watched as CoHo Productions staged her play "The Gun Show," which addresses another controversial current topic.
"I have big questions about the world and what's happening in it, and it's reflected in my plays," she says.
Her story is based on the happenings in 1986, when scientists and engineers from around the world converged at the South Pole Research Station to figure out, among other things, if a hole really existed in the sky. Eight people working as a research team for 8 1/2 months — including a Russian and an American in the days of the Cold War — and having to overcome life and death challenges, their own inner demons and depend on each other for survival.
It's a play of part historical adventure, part love story and mystical foray into the unknown.
"It has scientists as heroes. It's about the importance of truth. It's about a world that can either tear apart or come together for its own survival," she says.
Clearly, it's a play for the dedicated theater-goer, the scientifically curious, the history buffs and literature fans — and perhaps the folks who might binge-watch shows on Netflix. Nearly six hours long, it's produced in the tradition of epics "The Kentucky Cycle" and "Angels in America."
Says Lewis: "If you buy a ticket to 'Magellanica,' you're going on an adventure with us ... I think people will have fun. There's something in it for everybody — science, history, politics, romance, violence, outdoors, and the extraordinary place Antarctica."
There were reading workshops done in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The cast: Vin Shambry, John San Nicholas, Michael Mendelson, Sara Hennessy, Allen Nause, Eric Pargac, Joshua J. Weinstein, Barbie Wu.
Damaso Rodriguez, Artists Rep's artistic director, directs the play. Needless to say, he has been a busy man in recent weeks, considering the elongated rehearsal for six hours of play. (Rodriguez believes it'll be about 5 1/2 hours when it's finalized for stage).
It also took more money than with usual works, and "Magellanica" received major funding from the Oregon Community Foundation Creative Heights Initiative and the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award.
"This kind of theater comes along relatively rarely," Rodriguez says. "It's just so hard to produce and make happen. It's hard to write. This particularly felt written with the detail of a novel. Ellen is an extraordinary writer, but she's able to invest in backstories of characters and watch them grow over a longer period of time than usual. It's a rewarding form of theater."
Lewis works in international flavor with different languages, albeit using English as the main one. There are stories from culture and songs. Central characters are Russian and American climatologists. The first part is like a movie, cinematic with characters and location changes; the second is a two-character play, debating work they're doing; another act has some singing and comedy; another is told in a magical sense, like a ghost story.
"We think Ellen's writing is so beautiful and personal and relevant to the state of the world right now," Rodriguez says. "She created this ever-changing and engaging story that happens to be a long-form story. We, as audience members and lovers of literature and art, we're accustomed to this. We watch television, and we actually like characters over long periods of time. If you like a great piece of television that you get hooked into and binge-watch, you'll like this."
Lewis can't wait to see her play on stage.
"I feel so grateful for this opportunity to work in my home state on the biggest project I've ever done," she says. "I can't say enough about how fabulous Damaso has been at the helm."
"Magellanica" runs at Artists Repertory Theatre's Morrison Stage, 1515 S.W. Morrison St., at various times/days, Jan. 20-Feb. 18. Official opening night is 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27. Tickets are $50, or $25 for preview/student/under 25. For more: www.artistsrep.org.