A Marionette Mission

A+Marionette+Mission

The scene is spectral, the music haunting, the characters a cast of papier-mâché ghosts floating through images and noise. The audience is bombarded by the constant stream of images and sounds that makes up Phantom Limb’s 69˚ S: The Shackleton Project, a multifaceted art performance that will combine puppetry with exploration on Emerson’s Paramount Mainstage Feb. 7 to 12.

Unlike most productions using marionettes, the Shackleton Project’s puppeteers are fully visible to the audience. Exasperated by the customarily limited space provided for most shows that use puppetry, the Phantom Limb company decided to push boundaries. The puppeteers — dancers draped in white — walk on stilts while controlling the marionettes. In an interview, company co-founder Jessica Grindstaff called them “omniscient figures in white,” who loom over their marionettes like watchful ghosts.

The Shackleton Project is the brainchild of Phantom Limb, a production company founded by the wife and husband team of Grindstaff and Eric Sanko. The group was born when Sanko, a musician who dabbles in the obscure art of marionette making, and Grindstaff, a diorama artist, decided to mesh their art, and in 2007 created The Fortune Teller, a marionette play. The SoHo production was supposed to run for three weeks, but instead became a runaway hit that ran for three months.

At this point, Grindstaff said they were discovering their vision, and then found themselves forming a company. With the Boston premier of The Shackleton Project swiftly approaching, Phantom Limb comes closer to solidifying its reputation.

Hearkening back to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, The Shackleton Project tells the story of famed European polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, the last major journey of the era. Shackleton and his team set out on a ship named Endurance with the goal of being the first men to completely cross Antarctica. The Endurance was crushed by pack ice only a year after the team set sail. The men survived the wreck, but were stranded in the middle of a harsh Arctic landscape.

Phantom Limb adapts the events surrounding the aftermath of the shipwreck. Puppets trudge along a frozen wasteland of jutting white land masses, desperate to see their initial goal come to full fruition.

“It was fascinating the way [Shackleton] chose to lead in the face of adversity,” said Grindstaff, highlighting  some major themes of the play. She said she admired his decision to forsake personal glory to save his crew.

The production was driven by what Grindstaff called the team’s sense of camaraderie and environment. The pair began a four-year project to convert the historical content into art, an undertaking which soon became The Shackleton Project.

If the hovering giants aren’t enough to haunt you, the set and design, inspired by a life-changing trip to Antarctica during the show’s development, will do the trick. The couple visited science research centers in the icy wasteland to better understand the vast country. Sanko took audio recordings to help him craft The Shackleton Project’s chilling music, and Grindstaff documented light and the landscape.

“It has a harrowing ability to wipe you out,” said Sanko of the arctic netherworld. The couple communicates this to the audience through dramatic set design and music. The set includes a rendering of the wrecked ship and layers of white, according to Grindstaff, illustrating the seemingly endless quality of the land. 

By composing music without a distinguishable melody, Sanko was able to make noise a vital, but not distracting, element of the show. 

“[I wrote] the music from the perspective of the landscape,” said Sanko, “because the landscape is a main character in a sort of way … The music possesses the element of being its own medium that stands on its own.”

Grindstaff said she hopes the show will “leave people in this beautiful dream state and later asking questions about the environment, climate change, evolution, and themselves.”