Magellanica is a lot to take in. Written by Portland playwright E.M. Lewis, it's a harrowing, epic odyssey about a group of researchers working in an isolated Antarctica laboratory. A world premiere staged by Artists Repertory Theatre, Magellanica has a five-and-a-half-hour run time, three intermissions and a 25-minute dinner break.
That may make the play sound like a daunting ordeal, Magellanica isn't something you sit through to prove that you can—full of intoxicating images and intense emotions, it's a seamless fusion of spectacle and intimacy.
Directed by Dámaso Rodríguez, the story begins in February 1986 as a crew of fictional scientists—Morgan (Sara Hennessy), May (Barbie Wu), Vadik (Michael Mendelson), Lars (Eric Pargac), Todor (Allen Nause) and William (Joshua J. Weinstein)—prepare to depart for an Antarctic research station where they will be sequestered for roughly eight months. Morgan and Vadik are studying the hole in the ozone layer, Todor plans to create "a new and accurate map of the world," but they all labor under the stern rule of Adam (Vin Shambry), a captain from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and his communist-hating sidekick, Freddie (John San Nicolas).
Tensions simmer between the characters, especially when Adam tries to squash Morgan and Vadik's plan to mount a life-threatening, kilometers-long expedition beyond the station to gather data on the ozone hole. Yet what makes Magellanica potent is its utopian vision of women and men of myriad backgrounds not only surviving together, but bonding through scenes of joyous silliness, like when William rouses everyone's spirits by flawlessly lip synching to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy."
While the play is sweeping in scope, some of its finest moments are its most delicate, like a scene where Adam tends to Todor, who is stricken with elevation sickness. When Adam gently removes Todor's boots and tucks him into bed, it's a moving reminder that despite the petty aggressions that sometimes cleave the play's characters apart, they're willing to rise above them when a life is at stake.
This cozy camaraderie perfectly counterpoints the grandeur of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's scenic design. The set of Magellanica is less a fixed creation than a shapeshifting behemoth. It transforms from a well-lit kitchen with a rectangular table where characters feast on pancakes and porridge cooked by Lars to the freezing wilderness outside the station, where clouds of smoke and heavy white drapes create the illusion of an endless, icy void and the sounds of shrieking winds making it feel like you're lost in a punishing storm.
Magellanica is so impressive as a work of visual art that it would be easy to sit back and solely savor its technical achievements. But that would defeat Lewis' point. Throughout the play, we are reminded that the specter of climate change is looming. The snowy landscape recreated onstage may be gorgeous, but its days are numbered.
We are also never allowed to forget that it's not too late to do something about that. Not only do the characters of Magellanica overcome vast divides to support Morgan and Vadik's quest to prove that climate change is real, but the play encourages a similar kind of togetherness in the audience. Like the characters, everyone who sees Magellanica is bound together for a massive stretch of time—you have little choice but to communicate with one another. And that, the play declares, is what will save us.
SEE IT: Magellanica is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 5:30 pm Thursday-Friday and 2:00 pm Saturday-Sunday, through February 18. $25-$50.