Richard Perry/The New York Times
A scene from the Phantom Limb Company’s “69°S.,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
By ERIC GRODE
Published: November 3, 2011
In “69°S.,” which opened Wednesday night at the BAM Harvey Theater, Ernest Shackleton and his five shipwrecked crew members look decidedly stoic.
Their impassive faces could easily stem from typical early-20th-century British pluck, or from the knowledge that the men have a long, hard winter in front of them. (Longer than they knew: the Endurance’s crew members were ultimately marooned at the titular latitude, off the Antarctic coast, for more than 18 months after their ship became stuck in pack ice.) Or they may look that way because they’re made of papier-mâché.
Either way, the six figures — three-foot-tall marionettes manipulated by a group of stilt-walking performers — are literally overshadowed by the galumphing physical production that the puppet-theater company Phantom Limb (puppets by Erik Sanko, sets by Jessica Grindstaff) has concocted around them.
Puppet theater certainly can be effective with its practitioners hiding in plain sight, as with bunraku. But the human presence cannot work in opposition to what the puppets are doing, and that’s just what happens here under Sophie Hunter’s direction.
With a few brief exceptions — a jubilant fireside dance followed by a haunting moment when the men levitate at the sight of the Endurance’s demise — the six explorers keep their movements to an energy-conserving minimum. But Ms. Hunter’s disciplined images are continually undermined by the clomping stilts and teetering performers. And whether it’s Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty’s otherworldly video projections or Mr. Sanko’s score (performed live by his clangorous band, Skeleton Key, alongside the recorded accompaniment of the Kronos Quartet), the elaborate production values make these heroic men bit players in their own story.
The rather sketchy narrative presupposes a certain level of Shackleton knowledge, so a little boning up beforehand is recommended. No amount of studying, however, will prepare you for the prologue and epilogue, in which the performers, decked out in red hooded jumpsuits, participate in a sort of ersatz Cirque de Soleil floor routine. Faced with the prospect of such entertainment, Shackleton and his men would be forgiven for preferring a year and a half of frostbite and isolation.
Speaking of which, what is it about puppets and frigid weather? The snowy Alps are home to the Salzburg Marionette Theater (of “The Sound of Music” fame) as well as to the long-dead mountaineer whose dying steps were re-enacted to devastating effect in the 1999 Complicité production “Mnemonic.” And in 2007 the Bialystok Puppet Theater in Poland adapted Nabokov’s early verse play “The Pole,” about Robert F. Scott’s earlier, ill-fated trip to Antarctica. Can a finger-puppet “Fargo” be far behind?