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Stage Review

‘69° S.’ is entrancing

“69° S.’’ tells the story of Ernest Shackleton’s antarctic expedition using marionettes manipulated by performers on stilts.PHANTOM LIMB/Phantom Limb

For desolate Patriots fans who could use a reminder of happier times, consider this:

As Bill Belichick was preparing his team for the 2001-02 season - the one that ended with the first Super Bowl victory of the Belichick era - he gathered them for a screening of “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure,’’ a film about the arduous 1914-16 expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Once the season began, Belichick kept reminding his players about what he called the “principles of endurance, courage, and teamwork’’ that enabled Shackleton and his men to survive a grueling ordeal. The coach later said it helped forge the much-noted bond developed by that year’s team.


Football aside, the near-mythic dimensions of the Shackleton expedition story have prompted a spate of films, and several books as well. But for sheer power to haunt the imagination, to capture the sense of isolation felt by that small band of men when they were trapped on the bottom of the world with no guarantee they would make it out alive, it’s hard to picture anything surpassing “69° S. (The Shackleton Project).’’

And here’s the amazing thing: It’s done with puppets.

To be precise, 4-foot-tall marionettes, manipulated by hooded performers on stilts who are attired in spectral white. This may sound like a stunt, a gimmick that trivializes its subject. It’s not. Rather, over the course of 65 minutes (not a one of which is wasted), this entrancing multimedia work creates a portrait of humanity locked in eternal struggle with nature’s brute force - while reminding us that any victory over nature is at best temporary.

Created by Erik Sanko (who also designed the puppets) and Jessica Grindstaff (who also designed the set), “69° S. (The Shackleton Project)’’ is a production by Phantom Limb, the collaborative, New York-based theater company Grindstaff and Sanko founded in 2007. Presented by ArtsEmerson, “69° S.’’ is running on the Paramount Center Mainstage through Sunday under the direction of Sophie Hunter.


Shackleton’s far-fetched plan, hatched in an era when the possibilities of exploration and discovery seemed limitless, was to journey by land from one side of Antarctica to the other. But his ship, the Endurance, became locked in pack ice far from land, at latitude 69 degrees south. The frozen vessel ultimately was crushed and sank. Shackleton and his crew marched for months, hauling lifeboats amid numbing cold and blizzards, then rowed to Elephant Island off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton decided to set sail in a 22-foot boat, along with five other men, in search of help. They traveled 800 miles across the ocean to South Georgia Island, then walked until they reached a whaling station. After he was evacuated to Chile, Shackleton located a boat and returned to Elephant Island to rescue his men. All of them survived.

“69° S.’’ depicts these events in a highly stylized, impressionistic fashion, a kind of visual and aural collage. While we occasionally hear snippets from radio broadcasts or video footage, not a word is spoken by the performers onstage. The action unfolds against a backdrop of constantly swirling snow (by video designers Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty), with Sanko’s eerie music (some recorded by Kronos Quartet, some played live by musicians onstage and in the balcony) and sound effects (by Martin J.A. Lambeek) that are at times overwhelming.


Their ship frozen, the explorers make a camp on the ice, a coiled red rope serving as their fire. We see them banter and even do a little jig at one point. But soon comes that chilling moment when their ship - a black, ribbed structure - begins to collapse in on itself, to a shattering crescendo. The explorers turn and stare in shock, float horizontally, then stare again.

Then comes the search for water and for land, followed by Shackleton’s journey for help while the others wait behind, and finally there is the poignant reunion. At each stage, the six performers - Kira Rae Blazek, Sabrina D’Angelo, Takemi Kitamura, Rowan Magee, Aaron Mattocks, and Carlton Ward - expertly manipulate the body language of the puppets in ways that somehow evoke sensations of solidarity and solitude at once, along with terror, despair, determination, resiliency.

Bracketing all this, at beginning and end, are the sinuous, dance-like movements of red-clad figures who, in their steady watchfulness, may represent all-conquering nature, or perhaps the slow, inexorable progression of history.

This extraordinary production put me in mind of remarks made by another Bill - Faulkner - as he accepted his Nobel Prize in 1950: “I believe that man will not merely endure: He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.