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Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer

Aidan Dooley's solo show about the little-known adventurer is alternately amiable and harrowing. logo
Aidan Dooley in Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
You never know how far an actor looking to keep busy between assignments will go to create a solo show for himself -- or how obscure the subject matter will be. Take Aidan Dooley, currently staking a claim on the Irish Repertory Company's turf in the alternately amiable and harrowing Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer.

Like so many of these fact-based enterprises, his two-act report on Crean, a famed Royal Navy petty officer who lived from 1877-1938, is not so much a play as an unusually animated lecture that at times seems only to stop an inch or two short of a PowerPoint presentation. Yet, there's something to be said -- not entirely facetiously -- about a summer offering in which 90-degree-below-Centigrade temperatures are repeatedly invoked.

Crean made three trips to the continent at the bottom of the planet, yet he is so little known to the general public that Dooley immediately mentions his character's near-anonymity. Crean pitted himself against the elements not only with the more famous Robert Scott, but also with another familiar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and this how-I-spent-my-summer-and-endless-winter tale covers the intense tribulations Crean endured with both men and their often ill-fated parties.

On one expedition, Crean had to trek what he figured to be 40 miles through uncharted territory in order to fetch supplies for two others he was required to leave behind, one of whom was suffering from a severe case of scurvy. In another expedition, Crean accompanied Shackleton and a third intrepid colleague on an 800-mile sea voyage in a flimsy life boat in order to help recover 22 members stranded on the icy Antarctic -- and lived to tell the tale despite Shackleton's avowed ignorance of navigation.

By the time Crean has finished dropping comments like "the struggle to live is what true heroism is about" and toddles off with his oil lamp, audience members may feel as if they've accompanied the staunch fellow every dogged step of the way through his many adventures. And incidentally, they may be wondering where Dooley got all his information, since Crean never kept a diary -- probably because he was so obviously otherwise occupied.

There's no question that much of Crean's literally chilling adventures are worth listening to. Moreover, the Irish-born Dooley -- who's refined his piece at various international Fringe festivals over the last few years -- includes other information that falls into the interesting-but-little-known-facts category.

For instance, did you already know that while the Antarctic is a genuine continent, the Arctic is a "frozen puddle," as Crean puts it? Did you know that the explorers' turn-of-the-last-century thermal clothing was designed by "a Mister Burberry"? (Yes, he means that Thomas Burberry). He also has a few evocative words to say about the beauty of Antarctic silence, the very mention of which induces a nearly palpable silence in the theater.

One reason for that laudable non-sound effect is the enthusiasm and awe conveyed by Dooley, who's tall and has an ingratiating smile. Indeed, as no director is credited (or, for that matter, no set designer), it appears that Dooley has done well to stress his own affability. His ability to suggest Crean's boundless love for his demanding endeavors holds our attention through what otherwise could easily seem like an extended show-and-tell session.

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