The puppets are gorgeous but the meaning hazy in Memory Rings, a silent, eighty-minute production by the Phantom Limb Company that is centered around the California Methuselah tree, which at over 4800 years old was once thought to be the oldest on the planet.
The gnarled Pinus longaeva sits center stage while the marionettes are manipulated by dancers dressed as plants and animals. Images are projected onto a screen in the background, most notably of the felling of redwoods. Various myths and fairy tales that deal with the relationship between man and nature—Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Gilgamesh—are evoked to little effect. Indeed, were it not for the written commentary by Phantom Limb co-founder Erik Sanko, who lets us know that these stories “identify a time when people were scared of the forest and when forests were magic and enchanted,” their purpose in Memory Rings would be anyone’s guess.
It’s a shame, too, since the craftsmanship here is exquisite. The puppets, standing maybe two feet tall, are close enough to the uncanny valley to elicit profound discomfort, meaning their possible uses for mythical adaptations are legion. Instead, they form the chorus of a production that, I suppose, moderately objects to the destruction of the earth. Mr. Sanko justifies his approach by observing that “nobody likes being lectured to about the world falling apart.” But even the most high-pitched and didactic of political theater has more to offer than this lukewarm and ineffectual piece. Taking a stand is easy. Emotionally and intellectually substantiating it is where the real work begins.