69 Degrees S. (The Shackelton Project)

February 10, 2012

in Performance Art, Plays

Performance by Phantom Limb
Arts Emerson

Paramount Center Mainstage
Boston, MA

February 7 – 12, 2012

Directed by Sophie Hunter
Choreographed by Andrea Miller
Video Design by Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty
Music Composed by Erik Sanko
Conceived in Collaboration with David Harrington/Kronos Quartet
Recorded Performance by Kronos Quartet
Live Performance and Additional Music by Skeleton Key
Developed with Tony Taccone

Advertisement for the Endurance expedition

Advertisement for the Endurance expedition

A nonverbal theatrical evocation of the famed Shackelton expedition of 1914 to Antarctica, with vivid video and audio supplementation and a brilliant use of lifesize puppets.

In 1914, Ernest Shackelton, an English explorer, sought to lead the first team to reach the South Pole. He gathered a group of men and embarked on the journey, only to have his ship caught in pack ice shortly before its destination. The crew was marooned on ice for months and then Shackelton made two dramatic decisions – to lead the men to the place where they could row to Elephant Island and from there, across the extremely treacherous southern ocean, to South Georgia Island.

The second part of this journey was particularly dangerous, but Shackelton and the skeleton crew he selected for that trip made it. In the end, the entire crew survived, an amazing testament to Shackelton’s leadership.

Phantom Limb performing 69 Degrees South (The Shackelton Project)

Phantom Limb performing
69 Degrees South (The Shackelton Project)
Image courtesy of ArtsEmerson

Phantom Limb has created an impressionistic stage-poem about the Shackelton adventure. There are no words, only a great deal of stagecraft and sound effects. Much of the stagecraft involves puppetteering of almost life-size puppets representing the men of the adventure. They are controlled by six puppetteers on stilts. Around them rise up icebergs (tenting of some sort) and the skeleton of a ship. Films and videos are projected constantly and the sound effects are dramatic and stirring.

Phantom Limb, based in New York City and led by the husband and wife team Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, recently received the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Award.

I found the overall effect dramatic, though it is a theatre piece that would be difficult for many to digest. It is just over an hour long, but it is intense. The music – or sound – can be quite jarring at points – and the pacing of the puppets is elongated. So, an hour did not feel really too short, given the content. Also, without any included narrative in words, it would be quite difficult for one not familiar with the Shackelton story to follow. I was familiar with it and knew what was going on, but I could sympathize with those who showed up, intrigued by the story, but finding only the barest hints of it in this production. But, this is compelling performance poetry, though not exactly what many people might have expected when going to the theatre to see a show about Shackelton.

Not one member of the the expedition perished during the nine month ordeal after the wreck of the Endurance, an amazing testament to Shackelton’s leadership.

The puppetteering is absolutely exquisite. The delicacy with which the puppetteers control the subtlest movements of these human characters is astounding. It was hard to believe that the puppets were not people.

The video work was also extremely good, with a constantly changing field of snow, waves, scenes from footage taken on the journey.

The crew of the "Endurance" hauling the "James Caird"

The crew of the Endurance hauling the James Caird

The music and sound, developed in conjunction with the Kronos Quartet, the celebrated interpreters of contemporary classical music, had a great deal of verve, but the range of its expression was limited. Sounds of cracking ice or of wind, waves and storms, predominated. Interlaced were streams of popular music of the era.

What was missing was a sense of something more in tune with what the puppetteers seemed to convey – a quiet poetry. The music really caught very little of that and it would have benefited from some deft interleaving of that into the sturm and drang.

Ernest Shackelton

Ernest Shackelton

This is a daring piece. It worked for me and for those I was with, but we heard murmurings from other corners of the crowd. No surprise, given the demands it put on the audience.

But ArtsEmerson is, once again, to be credited with supporting the effort to push the boundaries of theatre in interesting ways.

– BADMan

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