This article was originally written for the Anchorage Daily News.
Plenty of artists and authors have sought inspiration from Franklin’s lost expedition. Now, a new play from Perseverance Theatre is putting a spin on it by combining music, storytelling and science.
In 1845, English Captain John Franklin led a doomed attempt to journey across the Northwest Passage. On the expedition were two ships: the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, an unfortunately fitting name. The Franklin crew faced gruesome fates — whether starvation, hypothermia, cannibalism or lead poisoning, as various theories suggested — and all 129 men were lost.
That voyage is the premise of “Franklin,” a new play written by Samantha Noble and directed by Hannah Wolf, and Perseverance Theatre’s latest production of their 40th season.
In “Franklin,” scenes alternate between those of the crew on the HMS Terror and, 169 years later, an expedition team that is trying to find out what happened to the missing men.
Four crew members make up the HMS Terror, including David Sims (played by Zebadiah Bodine) and Henry Salt (Conner Chaney). These childhood friends are joined on the ship by Charles Johnson (Skyler Ray-Benson Davis), a stubborn sailor with a drinking problem, and John Handford (Travis Morris).
Fast-forward to 2014 and you’ll meet Caroline Crane (Victoria Bundonis), a hard-headed and disgruntled researcher who has been trying to find out what happened to the expedition for a decade. Caroline is joined by Kira Langevin (Michaela Escarcega), a 20-something singer-songwriter who incessantly rambles about her concept album highlighting the Franklin expedition. Kira joins the crew supposedly as part of the work she’s doing for her research grant proposal.
From their very first scene, Kira and Caroline’s relationship is rocky. Caroline sees through Kira’s concept album and dubs it a sham, and Kira knows that she is right. Caroline is there in a last-ditch effort to find answers and personal closure, while Kira longs for someone to recognize her work involving Indigenous people’s accounts of what went wrong.
With only some crates and a desk on stage, Bundonis’ presence fills the auditorium — and that isn’t because of her sailor’s mouth. She plays Caroline as a disillusioned researcher, haunted by the crewmen’s unanswered stories.
Kira’s musical melodies were written by Juneau singer-songwriter Marian Call. Call’s folk music is sprinkled throughout the play, but the sparseness of it is a reflection of Kira’s failed attempt to connect her music with the men’s journey. Her first lyric is fitting: “I’m in the Arctic / I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
The women are joined on their trek by Brett, another researcher, played by Morris. He makes it look easy to play two different roles as he alternates between Brett and 19th-century sailor John.
Caroline and Kira’s turbulent relationship eventually uncovers their biggest faults: both have lied in some capacity to get on the ship. With only 24 hours until the Coast Guard interferes, the women must overcome their differences and work together to answer the looming question, “what happened?”
After a slow start on opening night, “Franklin” gained momentum with seamless transitions between the complex narratives of the 1840s and the 21st century. Despite their eventual demise, Chaney and Sims’ back and forth banter provides comic relief, and Chaney’s portrayal of Henry in particular was both witty and tenacious. While Chaney wasn’t running around in a white sheet, the audience quickly understood his death was inevitable.
“Franklin” presents its audience with an elaborate storyline, intricate characters and a history lesson — but unless mystery ghost plays are your go-to, “Franklin” is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
“Franklin” is playing at the Sydney Laurence Theatre in the Alaska Performing Arts Center until Jan. 20. Tickets and showtimes can be found at centertix.com.