Friday, February 10, 2012

69” S. (The Shackleton Project)/ Phantom Limb/ ArtsEmerson /February 07-12

69” S. (The Shackleton Project)
Phantom Limb
World Première
February 07-12 ONLY
Paramount Center Mainstage
559 Washington Street in Boston’s Theatre District
Tickets online at or by phone at 617-824-8400
Limited Engagement!

By Amy Tighe

I love the Paramount. It feels splendid and yet inviting, comfortably kitschy in places and slightly intimidating in others. The tall splashy paintings of lovers in by-gone eras, the dramatic and grand stairwell and entrance, the spectrum of innovative cultural offerings always allows me to feel like I am completely held in the transformative arms of good art.
So even if I don’t like the performance I am seeing, it doesn’t matter. I am already engaged just by going.

69”S. ( The Shackleton Project) was described to me as watching poetry, or hearing a symphony, but I simply could not find myself in the piece. There is no dialogue, lots of edgey music and stunning visuals projected on the stage. And some technically intriguing performance work. It’s a multimedia and abstract exploration of the thrilling, dangerous and heroic journey of the Antarctic of 1914. Program notes and lots of back story is helpful, but for me, this performance was more enjoyable viewing it on its own devices.

There are nine Tableaux with no clear breaks between them. The Tableaux are written down, but you can’t read your program to see because the theatre is dark, so….

The first was Elemental Dreams: “After an ice age, man returns to earth.” Several dancers in bright red leotards perform against a white stage. It looked like they were having fun, and as usual, the littlest one gets thrown way up in the air a lot. (In my next life I want to come back as the smallest member of a very cool dance troupe.)

In the next several Tableaux, gigantic puppeteers maneuver marionettes, representing the explorers, through abstract and well thought out scenes. I just didn’t understand the thinking behind it. I spent the first 20 minutes of the performance (one third of the evening) wondering if the marionettes were real people or puppets. They seemed to be muttering a lot and they, the marionettes, moved beautifully. The puppeteers wore long white robes and winged head gear, and they looked like angels or lesser gods. The relationship between the marionettes and their masters was tender, careful. I loved watching that. Phantom Limb, a New York -City-based husband and wife team, created the puppets and use many other traditional theatre forms to investigate current perspectives on contemporary issues.

A black skeleton arrived and I have to say, it was a great idea, but just not executed at the same level as the puppets. The skeleton puppet was the same size as the human puppeteer, and you could not make out the skull well. It’s only that the faces of the other puppets, the Shackleton explorers, were so exacting and so mysterious that the black skull was more of a distraction. And the seal puppet seemed like bad comic relief.
The stage was an everchanging canvas upon which arctic weather was projected. Abstract images at times, and then real ghost ships and glaciers, and at one point a lovely beach which flooded the theatre. Deftly, a terrifying crack in the ice floe was projected on to the stage. This “ installation in motion” was fascinating to watch. There was a geological image that was projected several times, in several geological phases, but it was not clear to me. I guess it was a glacier melting, and I guess I am supposed to recognize the shape, but somehow the message got lost in the abstractive art. The video design by Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty was engaging and worked seamlessly with Jessica Grindstaff’s set design.

I guess the skeleton and the lesser gods and the long sheets of ice and shapes changing are meant to have a message. I sat next to a professor of theatre at a pretty good university and asked what she thought- she said “maybe the leotards are red because they didn’t want to do “Blue Man Group”?

The next day in my writing class we discussed the power of dialogue and I realize that the visuals were meant to speak, the silence was meant to be the voice and the little red dancers were the grammar. Then again, maybe not. It’s abstract and we are meant to piece it together.

The music was performed in four locations throughout the theatre, and was also recorded. Skeleton Key creates ice cracking as part of their score, eerie winds and glorious instrumentals, give voice to the elements, dialogue with the shifting images on the stage.

After the show, in the foyer, there were two women excitedly discussing the performance. I asked if I could join them and they invited me to sit. Retired librarians and teachers, they told me the piece was like walking into a poem, or into a symphony. They loved the piece. I loved talking to them—the foyer feels like a living room where good friends can meet.
I walked down the elegant stairwell and felt like I was leaving a beloved shore. Sure, I read all the notes and know there is a statement here about nature and brave humans and larger gods and masters. But mostly what I loved was the dedicated thoughtfulness, created by ArtsEmerson, which brings us together, lets us chat to strangers about topics as large as the very gods, all while being held fully in the poem of the Paramount Theatre.

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