Glaciers take shape at Flynn

Stark, white glaciers rose, and Ernest Shackleton’s ship, The Endurance, sailed in from the curtains. Inspired by Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, New York City-based Phantom Limb Company, created “690S: The Shackleton Project,” a breathtaking collaboration of puppetry, sculpture and music. Last Thursday, the collaboration came to the Flynn Theatre. It was at 69  degrees south that The Endurance sank. The ship was en route to Antarctica, where Shackleton hoped to map the previously unknown topography.   In an ambitious move to save his men, Shackleton and his team traversed from ice flow to ice flow, eventually rowing lifeboats to South Georgia, an island several hundred miles away.   The company’s artistic rendering of these events unfolded on stage in ways both interpretive and literal.    The stage was spectacularly designed from topographic data collected during a grant-funded Antarctic excursion led by co-creators Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko Sheets of white fabric, the sides of smooth glaciers, floated down as curtains, meeting up with crumpled white mounds on the floor. Almost too suddenly, the backdrop became a screen in which eerie black and white shadows pulsed about the projection of a ghostly ship. As it navigated through distorted glaciers, the performance began. Performers in full red body suits scuttled on stage, their bodies shortened, as they had each palm clasped behind their calves. The interpretative choreography seemed to symbolize the dangerous movement of The Endurance into an ice flow, or the red threat of death thereafter.   However, the opening dance was the most abstract portion of the show, its meaning left open-ended. Music recorded by the Kronos Quartet reached a chorus of deadening silence and stringed instruments, with the dancers’ absence. Serving as structural marionettes, the white masses on stage slowly rose up from the stage by a single red rope to form glowing glaciers.   Set designer Grindstaff’s glaciers, like contemporary light fixtures, enhanced the set architecturally, creating a realistic replication of the harsh Antarctic landscape. With Antarctica installed, the performance felt more realistic.  The skeletal, black Endurance sailed on stage when Shackleton’s team of marionettes assembled. Phantom Limb is recognized for their refreshing and innovative takes on traditional puppetry. The puppeteers were not hidden in black clothes, nor were they standing atop a cardboard stage.  They were on bright white robot-like stilts, donning avant-garde white suits.   A futuristic headpiece, mimicking the structural “topos” in the glaciers, obscured each face.  The puppets below shared blank faces, their small bodies appropriately dressed in warm wools and tweed.   The funereal sounds of the quartet grew more somber as the reality of Antarctica’s desolate moonscape and isolation set in amongst the men. The emotions of the puppets were convincingly human.   Optimism and camaraderie flourished as the group huddled around a fire, but plummeted as their cold bodies shivered in the face of starvation. The interaction between the music and set was evocative.  As The Endurance literally deconstructed on stage, loud guitars, drums and flashes of red-light explosions animated its descent.   More attention and time was spent on these aspects of the 1914 expedition, while the boat trip to South Georgia was visited only for a few minutes. After Shackleton saluted his crew one by one, finally on solid ground, the dancers in red returned, parading through as the glaciers melted, struck down by a single red rope.   690S concluded with a heavy nod to global warming, and the consequences humans face as they sever the red, bleeding “umbilical cord,” as Grindstaff described it, connected to Mother Earth.   The hint of environmentalism was meaningful, but the closing movements by the red performers seemed monotonous.  The dancing skeleton at the end seemed out of place. Regardless, “690S” is worth some abstract confusion.