Peril on ice: an Antarctic tragedy

Lawrence Howard's "Polar Opposites: Amundsen, Scott, and the Race for the South Pole" spins a tale of adventure and deadly ambition

As the pre-show jazz band finished up a generous hour-long set at The Old Church on Saturday night and began packing up, Lawrence Howard sidled downstage, took a look at the big prop perched on a stand behind him, and turned to the audience conspiratorially. “I hate it when the map’s upside down,” he observed, and manhandled the thing – a giant representation of Antarctica and its surrounding waters – into proper position. Even way down under, it appears, what’s up is up and what’s down is down.

Lawrence Howard tells a tale of Antarctica. Photo: Kimmie Fadem

Then Howard, the co-founder of Portland Story Theater who is known as “The Armchair Adventurer” for his own long yarns of historical derring-do, pitched right into his tale, Polar Opposites: Amundsen, Scott, and the Race for the South Pole. Most but not all of Howard’s adventure tales are set against the challenges of the Arctic or Antarctic (he’s also recounted the stories of the Victorian Englishman John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and lived to tell the tale; and of the 1820 sinking of the whaler The Essex, a disaster that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick), and Polar Opposites takes him back to familiar formidable southern territory. A tale Howard first told in 2011, on the centennial of the events it recounts, it’s the story of the competing expeditions in late 1911 and early 1912 of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the British expeditionary leader Robert Falcon Scott to be the first humans to set foot on the geographic South Pole.

Howard’s relating of it is a study in leadership styles, efficiency, and decision-making under pressure. It is both a rousing adventure and something of a tragedy, both personally and in the nationalistic rivalries that so often drove the exploits of the age of exploration. And it’s told in two tight, tense acts that nevertheless take their time to explore personality traits and pertinent details: Why are dogs better than Manchurian ponies on the ice? Which team is more comfortable on skis? What are the advantages and disadvantages of motorized sledges? Why is pemmican better eaten warmed than cold?

As Lynne Duddy, Howard’s wife and partner at Portland Story Theater, put it, Howard’s armchair adventures aren’t theater and they aren’t lectures – they’re storytelling. The stories are shaped like a script but vary night by night in the telling, and Howard pointedly does not try to “become” the characters. He relates a narrative, relying on the historical record but giving the story his own spin. It’s an old-fashioned art form, reaching back to the days of tales told around a fire, and Howard is a deeply accomplished storyteller, self-assured and omniscient yet also somehow humble in service to the story. His delivery is warm, reasoned, reflective, quietly entertaining without calling undue attention to itself, which makes it all the more potent, near the end of this performance, when his voice breaks as he is relating the mostly self-inflicted disasters that befall Scott and his expedition.

The Old Church holds story and audience in a warm embrace. Photo: Kimmie Fadem

Amundsen’s story comes before intermission and Scott’s after, and although the Amundsen tale is interesting and well-told, it’s Scott’s story that carries the day. Amundsen is a no-fuss guy, confident and capable, and his expedition goes off like clockwork: Yes, he gets to the pole first, handily. Scott is diffident about leadership but also determined to be in charge, a complex blend of ego and passivity, a believer in heroic idealism and a man sometimes given to pettiness. He nurtured a long feud with his fellow British explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose own second expedition in 1907-09 fell 97 miles shy of the South Pole, yet he followed Shackleton’s route and adopted many of his strategies. At a time when tourists routinely travel to Antarctica and a changing climate is breaking off huge chunks of ice, it’s good to recall what an unyielding challenge this frozen continent was only a little more than a century ago – and to realize how quickly and drastically things can change.

Howard, calm and bearded and reassuring, spun out his story onstage in front of the towering arch of The Old Church’s pipe organ, which lent its intimate warmth to a frosty tale. The downtown space, with seating for about 300, seems a good home for Portland Story Theater, which had to scramble for a new space late last year when its home in Northeast Portland, the Fremont Theater, shut down. Saturday night, the audience seemed comfortable with the choice.

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Lawrence Howard’s Polar Opposites repeats Feb. 23 at Norse Hall, March 24 at Nordia House, April 13 at Crooked River Ranch in central Oregon, and April 14 at the Cascades Theatre in Bend.

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