My wife and I recently attended 69 ̊ S. at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall.
On August 1, 1941, an Antarctic expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton left London on their ship, Endurance. 2 days later World War I erupted. As the war was only expected to last a few months the crew of 28 men continued on their quest to be the first explorers to cross the continent of Antarctica.
They failed to achieve their goal, yet what they did accomplish was one of the most amazing feats of survival ever recorded. Their ship was trapped in ice and eventually crushed but all the crew survived for three years to return safely to England.
(I think it might be The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition but I’m not sure. We lost our copy once, bought another, and now I can’t find it either. This concerns me.)
69 ̊ S. conveys the desperation and perseverance of Shackleton and his team as well as any of those offerings. There were times that it was deeply moving.
Created by the theatrical team Phantom Limb, Shackleton is tackled in a way that I never would have imagined. First of all, staging this subject as a play makes perfect sense. There’s lots of drama and opportunities for characters to deliver powerful monologues about separation, loss, hope, fear, love and the indomitable human spirit. But here’s where 69 ̊ S. makes a bold choice. Other than some soundtrack audio, there is no dialog. The characters do not utter a word.
The play is hauntingly scored by Kronos Quartet and Skeleton Key (founded by bassist Erik Sanko, who, along with wife Jessica Grindstaff, comprises Phantom Limb Company). This conveys a great deal of the play’s emotion. The backdrop is a video screen with what appears to be archival footage of the expedition. I don’t know what is more impressive: that photographer Frank Hurley captured so many stills and movies or that he was able to preserve the film.
Phantom Limb’s most inspired choice is selecting this story to be carried by marionettes.
The puppets are roughly life-sized and manipulated by puppeteers on stilts. The costuming places the handlers as guiding spirits at the sides of the ill-fated crew. The movements are deftly handled, conveying a range of emotions.
While the fabricated faces only have one expression, they are far from expressionless. The characters exhibit personality though their subtle movement. There’s never a hint of Muppet frenetics. Just a slumping shoulder or the tilt of a head tell you exactly what a character is feeling.
The staging includes a skeleton of the ship Endurance and white fabric ice mountains that rise from the stage. The play opens with red clad dancers whose role is left for the audience to ascertain as Phantom Limb isn’t even sure of their meaning.
My interpretation is that they represent the hardship and death of the Antarctic wasteland. They are the demons that must be endured by any who wish to test their mettle in the harshest of conditions. They give a soul and purpose to the elements. The wind and cold are not just unmotivated forces of nature. They protect Antarctica from any who may try to tame it.
The white clad handlers that guide the Shackleton’s team are nature’s mercy. I equate that to God. You can call them fortune or whatever force in this universe you believe keeps trying to give humans a chance.
Whatever you believe, the lesson of 69 ̊ S. is that we get chances in life to do something special.
We face the unknown every day. We never know what the next moment may hold. Maybe we’re thousands of miles from civilization watching the ice crush our ship or maybe we’re walking in to a job interview.
But we choose each step we take.
We can struggle forward alone or unite with those around us. Even if there is a guiding force giving us nudges in the right direction or possibly dragging us forward, it’s up to us to choose to have strength, courage and resolve.
Maybe it’s a family crisis or a career decision. Maybe it’s a mess we’ve created by our own choices in life or we find ourselves thrust into events not of our making.
We can’t change the path that brought us to this point in our lives. We can take steps to avoid similar situations in the future but at this moment, we have a choice.
We can choose to be special. We can choose to be heroic. We can choose to survive.
Or we can demand relief. We can whine. We can levy blame. We can cry that adversity is unfair.
Phantom Limb took a chance and produced a play unlike any I have ever seen. I don’t know if they’re making money off it but I hope they are. I doubt pulling together the diverse elements of the production was an easy chore but they chose to persevere and create something special. They took risks.
Shackleton and his crew could have given up countless times and still been considered heroes for surviving a year or even a month in those conditions, let alone three years. But they took risks – setting out in life boats to face seas that sink freighters, scaling a mountain using 50 feet of rope and carpentry tools, or even just going to Antarctica in the first place.
I know a lot of my posts ramble on about independence and personal responsibility. But I think it’s meaningful that Shackleton’s crew is remembered for saving themselves, not for setting up camp and demanding to be rescued.