Near the end of E.M. Lewis' five-act epic Magellanica, Lars Brotten (Eric Pargac) wonders what kind of story he is living through. Is it a mystery? A thriller? A ghost story? He's indecisive, so maybe it's best to simply say that Magellanica is about eight people who go to Antarctica—and that it is a masterpiece.
Magellanica's 2018 world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre echoed through the Portland theater community like a thunderclap. The beautiful bonds between the play's characters weren't the only connections created—when a production is so long that it requires four intermissions, the anonymity of your fellow audience members evaporates. They become your partners on a journey of being overwhelmed by a great and lengthy story.
That feeling is re-created in Artist Rep's magnificent new Magellanica audio drama. If you missed the play in 2018, now is your chance to submerge yourself in its wonders—and if you've seen it, it's time you heard it. Nothing can replace the visual and emotional power of Magellanica in a theater, but the transformation of Lewis' creation into a rush of voices and sounds yields a transcendent, unexpectedly intimate listening experience.
While some of the dialogue was adapted for the new format, the narrative remains the same. In 1986, a team of scientists—Lars, Morgan Halsted (Sara Hennessy), Vadik Chapayev (Michael Mendelson), Todor Kozlek (Allen Nause), May Zhou (Barbie Wu) and William Huffington (Joshua J. Weinstein)—is flown to an Antarctic research station run by Adam Burrell (Vin Shambry), a captain from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and his sidekick, Freddie de la Rosa (John San Nicolas).
The scientists' myriad missions range from studying the southern lights to examining the hole in the ozone layer, but Lewis is most interested in the group's resemblance to a miniature United Nations. The characters hail from Britain, Bulgaria, Norway, the Soviet Union and the United States—and, in the play, divisions based on borders are no match for the friendships that isolation forces them to forge. Even Morgan and Vadik, who are divided by the Iron Curtain, come to respect each other's doggedness.
It's a testament to the actors that the sound of these relationships is just as moving as the sight of them. The entire original cast returned for the audio drama, and the act of solely listening reshapes your perception of their performances in intriguing ways. Wu's perkiness, for instance, seems even more intense than it did onstage, but so does her silence after May endures a cataclysmic loss. Even when she doesn't speak, you feel the force of her presence.
Magellanica also has an indispensable ninth cast member—sound designer Rodolfo Ortega. From the crackling static of a communications device to the eerie wail of the wind, he makes you believe you are alongside these women and men, savoring the same joys and enduring the same hardships they are.
That sense of identification amplifies the play's prophetic vibe. Trapped in a building they rarely leave for fear of death, the characters can't help but resemble a family quarantined together during COVID-19. Their frustration with and need for one another are all too familiar, just like their struggle to cope with both the terrors of the moment and the traumas of the past (the specters of Morgan's dead husband and Adam's service in the Vietnam War haunt the play).
Yet to describe Magellanica as being accidentally about the pandemic is to diminish Lewis' brilliance. She has written a tale for 2018, 2020 and every year after. Survival never goes out of style, especially in a play that fearlessly confronts death even as it embraces life.
In Magellanica, life is many things. It's May comforting Todor with ginger candies as he recovers from elevation sickness. It's William coming out to Lars. It's Morgan and Vadik venturing outside so they can collect data that could save countless people from the effects of climate change. It's the team putting on a talent show after one of their number has died, refusing to deny their grief but also refusing to let it break them.
Life is also Morgan telling May, "Everybody's lonely sometimes." She's right, but for a few precious hours, the Magellanica audio drama eclipsed some of the loneliness that I've felt during the pandemic. I hope it will for you, too.
LISTEN: Parts 1 and 2 of Magellanica are available now at artistsrep.org. Parts 3 and 4 debut Oct. 5. Part 5 will be released Oct. 12. You can stream the production through June 30, 2021. $5-$60.