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'Crean' is mostly an exploration in comedy

Aidan Dooley injects so much humor into his one-man show ''Tom Crean -- Antarctic Explorer" that it could be redubbed ''Tom Crean -- Stand-up Comedian."

For many, that's apparently a positive. Dooley has toured ''Crean" throughout Ireland (where both he and Crean were born), he won the best solo performance award at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2003, and he seemed to have the opening-night Sugan Theatre Company audience eating out of his hand.

This, then, is most likely a minority report.

Crean is a legitimate hero of the early 20th century South Pole expeditions, having served with Robert Scott on the ''Discovery" and ''Terra Nova" explorations (1901-1913) and with Ernest Shackleton on the ''Endurance" trek (1914-1916). A genial fellow, he served both men well and helped rescue fellow crewmembers trapped by ice and snow.

But the way Dooley tells the story, it's a bit like a ''Star Trek" episode done as a one-man show by Scotty, the chief engineer. ''That Vulcan wouldn't crack a smile, but I'd go to the end of the galaxy with 'im." Here it becomes ''Let no man say in my company [Scott] wasn't the bravest of men."

Dooley's Crean brings the same kind of sidekick subservience to the story, mixed with bland comic asides. Perhaps the feeling is that the material is so dark -- what with people freezing to death and dogs and cats being shot and sometimes eaten -- that it's necessary to lighten the audience's load by tossing in homespun blarney.

The actor is certainly as exuberant a raconteur as one could look for. And when he's talking about life and death experiences, he makes the dangers of Antarctic exploration palpable and the relief of rescue thrilling, as when he relates how Shackleton wouldn't let people with hypothermia fall asleep when such a sleep could be fatal. He begins on a strong foot, too, as he dons his not-so-gay apparel piece by piece as he's addressing the audience.

He doesn't, though, make Crean a figure of great insight. Why did he keep going to the Antarctic? Because it's the last place on Earth. How did he survive? Because God wanted him to.

The actor's exuberance sometimes cuts against the theatrical arc of the material. One can imagine a ''NOVA" documentary that captures the thrills and chills of the expeditions far more dramatically.

Dooley doesn't add much in the way of atmospherics. Each act is introduced by wind sound effects, and that's about it. There's little modulation of the lights and only a handful of props. Again, the audience seemed satisfied that Dooley, as writer and actor, was creating a believable world.

To me, it seemed that he was going to too-great lengths to avoid the bleakness and misery of the expeditions and the darker motivations of some of the explorers. It's all a bit reminiscent of Frank McCourt's ''A Couple of Blaguards," a play that preceded his memoir ''Angela's Ashes" that makes merry with some of the same sad material.

Ironically, some people thought that last year's Sugan season was too dark. (I wasn't one of them.) ''Tom Crean -- Antarctic Explorer" strains too much to go in the opposite direction. Lightening up isn't always a good thing.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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