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BWW Review: Phantom Limb Company's FALLING OUT at Kennedy Center


BWW Review: Phantom Limb Company's FALLING OUT at Kennedy Center

Puppetry is one of the realms of the New York's Phantom Limb Company, so their latest environmental opus "Falling Out" begins with some rough human-figures that look more like mannequins being slowly swept or carried across the stage like detritus from the ocean's edge.

But the visually arresting production, which played a pair of shows at the Kennedy Center this week, is more than that. First, it mixes in documentary footage from a research visit to Fukijima about the nuclear meltdown that resulted from the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. There is also the ritual movements of the Japanese dance theater called Butoh, the Brooklyn-based practice of flex dancing, and a mesmerizing soundtrack from Erik Sanko (the company co-founder who also designed the puppets).

Throughout the production, a wall of black bags lines the back wall - representing one of the little known results of the Fukijima disaster that artistic director Jessica Grindstaff wanted to impart to audiences: How mitigation of the heavy radiation there involves scraping a foot and a half of contaminated soil, placing them in numbered black construction bags, and transporting them to open air fields for further transport, all the while remaining vulnerable to the kind of natural forces that caused the disaster in the first place.

Through the performance, the bags are thusly tossed and kicked around, such that some of their radiation is made to look escaping through the generous use of white tulle, the fine mesh netting used in tutus. The tulle also came to be used as substitute for the ocean, when mixed with effective projections and sound design. And the point of the radiation eventually mixing with the environment so they seem like the essentially same thing was quite devastatingly clear.

"Falling Out" is the third of an environmental trilogy from Phantom Limb, which began with two other projects that used a similar amount of research and contemplation. The first was about Ernest Shackleton's failed expedition to Antarctica in 1914-17; the second about the world's oldest tree, a California bristlecone pine estimated to be more than 4,800 years old.

"Falling Out" is perhaps the darkest and most bleak of the three, and its molasses-like moves make it seem at times funereal. But Grindstaff says she was determined to find some hope in what happened at Fukushima anyway. If so, it may be in the documentary films she shot of citizens remaining there (and whose motions are copied by the troupe of six in a way of physical empathy).

As the subjects appear in the film, they seem to be determined to find a way forward from the disaster, and to learn from it, even with all those bags kicking around.

The arresting images and movement, more effective than a mere lecture, ensure that we will not soon forget the dangers of unchecked nuclear safety at a time when the climate change is causing ever more explosive dangers. It shows the power of theatrical presentation to deliver such urgency.

Running time: About 90 minutes.

Photo credit: Dai Matsuoka in the Phantom Limb's "Falling Out." Photo by Richard Termine.

"Falling Out" by Phantom Limb Company, played April 4 and 5 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Terrace Theater, as part of the center's Direct Current festival and the similarly named Cross Currents festival from Georgetown University's The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. Information: 202-467-4600 or online.

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