Pretty Cold

J and I finally stumbled out of our workaholic haze to check out Phantom Limb’s 69° S: The Shackleton Project at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Theater.

The show is an “installation-in-motion” using dance, puppets, sound design and video to tell the story of the 1912 Endurance expedition. The ship became trapped in ice during it’s Trans-Antarctic mission and ultimately sank, stranding explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew in the freezing wilderness. Shackleton and a small party of men travelled 349 miles on foot for help, ultimately facilitating the rescue and not losing a single man. It’s like a Viking saga for the scotch-and-soda set. I bet it gets Richard Branson all misty-eyed.

As pure installation, the piece is successful. The stark tableaux of Endurance‘s skeleton against the ‘glacial’ landscape is gut-wrenching. Watching the creators’ Kickstarter video, it’s clear that image was the inspiration for the entire show. I just sort of wish it had definitively chosen whether to be more abstract or more story-driven. It toed the line just enough that I was left wanting more guts to the narrative.

The stand-out for me are the costumes developed for the production by fashion collaborators threeASFOUR.

Photo: Bryce Lambert

HOLY SHIT, ARE THOSE NINJAS?? This is way better than the History Channel’s version.

According to the show’s program, the ‘red figures’ represent nature and the wildness of the landscape (Right. Not ninjas). They wear full body suits with fabric draped and folded to obscure the humanity of the dancers. At the same time, glimpses of sheer mesh inserts reveal the musculature of their bodies.

Photo: Egbert Euser

The puppeteers are wrapped in white robes and perched on stilts, towering over their paper-mache charges. This was really brilliantly executed even if I was terrified one of them would go ass over spring-operated teacups and end up in my lap. The height difference separates them from the action and elevates them to a god-like presence. Deus ex Machina, only better dressed. The robes are trimmed with contrast binding, which also forms the structure of the hood. The overall effect was like a flurry of wing-like structures - Madeleine L’Engle’s angel in the flesh.

I realize it seems horribly shallow to focus on the costumes here. The real take-away is how nature is scarred by our constant intrusion and how we are likewise changed by her ambivalence. Or something. Look, the kind of quiet drama threeASFOUR conjures here gives me a total sartorial hard-on. It’s not difficult to create elaborate theater costumes that steal the show but it takes real masters to design pieces that gently take the audience’s hand and direct us to where we are supposed to look.

- Regan

(Top/feature photo: Phantom Limb)