The program insert for the 69°S.: The Shackleton Project (at ArtsEmerson through February 12) features a reprint the original advertisement Ernest Shackleton placed before beginning his famous 1914 trans-Antarctic expedition:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
With that like a stone in your gut, six figures in tight head-to-foot red costumes appear on stage between ice-white curtains and bleak video-projected glacierscapes. An unsettling, scratchy radio loop drones as two pairs huddle into each other and morph into shapes reminiscent of trekking poles, while two hunched individuals skitter around like animals. Is their odd, alien presence meant to represent human arrogance? Or are they a heavy-handed reference to global warming?
Suddenly, the soundtrack grows more desperate. A skeleton figure appears. Glacial, white structures rise dramatically as lights flash, evocative of a winter storm on the tundra. The wooden backbone of a ship slides mechanically onto the stage. And then a handful of incredibly life-like marionettes (puppeted by white-robed figures on stilts) in elaborate explorer garb emerge.
Led by Phantom Limb, the New York–based husband-and-wife production team of Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, 69°S. is at its best when it sticks to painting moody, multimedia landscapes, transporting the viewer to the turn-of-the-century wilds of the South Pole. Like a well-designed music video, Grindstaff’s sleek set, threeasFOUR’s ethereal costuming, Sanko’s unnerving marionettes and edgy sound design (with Kronos Quartet’s recorded score), and Andrew Hill’s light design create an immersive experience that transcends written accounts of the journey.
But following the opening, the meditations lose steam. The arrival of the puppets leads to several tableaux depicting rowdy dancing, searching for water, or shivering. Barring a dramatic moment when the ship collapses in front of us in two sharp cracks, the narrative is difficult to follow without the explanatory program insert.
Details become even more important as they get lost in the play-by-play recreation of the adventure, and as a murky contemporary comment on environmentalism imbues the piece with preachiness. We’re left to question why Phantom Limb chose to grind out the actual story on stage rather than create a gallery installation. The format feels longer than its 65-minute running time, too vague to be narrative-driven yet too bogged down in story to be fully immersive. We, like the explorers, get lost.
During the actual expedition, the explorers’ ship became icebound and eventually sank, leaving them stranded in deep winter. Shackleton and a small team of men made an 800-mile open-boat journey to get help, and Shackleton personally mounted the return rescue. His leadership and sacrifice are legendary (it’s said that he only took four weeks of food on his journey for help, since the men he left behind also had that amount of provisions, and he refused to favor his own survival over his crew’s).
In the last tableau, the white glacial structures have receded and the marionettes returned to safety. The red figures reappear and continue their baffling tasks, laughing as the skeleton sings a song under a rain of confetti. I gave up on interpreting the message and instead wished the Shackleton puppet would return to the stage to bravely lead the production out of the wild.