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The alien remoteness of Antarctica has probably never been better depicted on stage than in 69°S., a marionette theatre experience presented at the BAM 2011 Next Wave Festival by performance ensemble Phantom Limb. I write “experience” because I’m not really sure what else to call this. It was an ambitious staging of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance Expedition, where the explorer’s ship was crushed by ice and it took over two years for him and his crew to get back home safely. (Unfortunately, even with that somewhat happy ending, most of them went on to die in World War I, which had escalated while they were stranded on the ice.) Modern dance, video projections, pouding music both live and recorded and a stark set all eerily accompanied the six marionettes acting out the story, their frozen white faces already displaying bitter misery long before their puppet ship collapsed and slid away off stage.
69°S. is named for the latitude where Shackleton’s ship was stranded, and it is also the isolated location where the puppets first emerge on the stage, their limbs controlled by looming performers on stilts in flowing, beekeeper-like costumes, their faces totally hidden. Unlike when I saw War Horse, another puppet driven production playing in New York, I never forgot that these people were pulling the strings, never totally bought into these marionettes as breathing little beings. But it worked for 69°S., making it feel like the explorers were already dead, and just the ghosts of their humanity hovering above kept them moving across the tundra.
Above all, 69°S. was profoundly creepy. The performance was bookended by the unearthly presence of a skeleton animated by the touch of its human carrier (think Marina Abramović’s “Nude with Skeleton”). Phantom Limb, co-founded by Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, definitely has the edge on theatre of the most disquieting kind, with their previous productions The Fortune Teller (2006) and Dear Mme. (2007) also using puppets to haunting effect. For 69°S., the puppeteers doubled as writhing dancers and the musicians of Sanko’s band Skeleton Key scraped metal and added to a brutal score recorded by the Kronos Quartet, shaking BAM’s Harvey Theater as ominously as the wind at the end of the earth from their perches in the box seats. (Field recordings taken by Sanko and Grindstaff during an actual journey to Antarctica add to the heavy score.) There seems to be a certain 19th century-minded creepiness fueling dark corners of contemporary art these days, with Phantom Limb’s productions being joined by Chong Gon Byun‘s recent curiosity cabinet-type show at the Invisible Dog, the phantasmagoric Night Scented Stock at Marianne Boesky Gallery and just about everything presented at the Observatory in Gowanus.
Shackleton was a major figure in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and after losing the race to the South Pole to Norwegian Roald Amundsen, he decided he would one-up that by attempting to travel all the way across Antarctica. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition departed England on August 1, 1941, just two days before the start of World War I, and after crossing the ocean became trapped in ice on February 24, 1915, just a day of sailing away from the main continent.
The ship, called the Endurance, was eventually crushed by the ice and sank, leaving the men with only lifeboats, which they used to row to the remote Elephant Island, reaching it on April 16, 1915. With no rescue in sight, Shackleton set out for a whaling station on South Georgia with a small crew, arriving on May 10, 1916. Finally, he returned to Elephant Island on August 30, 1916, and, remarkably, saved the entire remaining crew. Yet when they finally returned to England, most of the men enlisted in the military and many died in the war, which managed to be even more harsh than inhospitable Antarctica.
It seemed like 69°S. ended rather abruptly, with Shackleton waving farewell to his men and the skeleton and red dancers returning to leave the audience with a sense of dread. I was expecting that some sign would be given that the poor sad puppets would eventually be rescued, but I guess the raging war that was consuming the world was going to get them in the end. Even if someone didn’t know the story, or wasn’t close enough to the stage to see the forlorn lines of the marionette’s faces, I think they would still take away a deep feeling of cold and isolation, only a phantom of what it must have been like to be trapped without communication, or even much hope, thousands of miles from your home.