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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Memory Rings—A Giving Tree

Photo: Sierra Urich
By Robert Jackson Wood

The world’s oldest tree is a 5,062-year-old Bristlecone Pine located somewhere—only scientists know exactly where—in California’s White Mountains. The world’s oldest account of deforestation is perhaps in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,100-year-old tale of a man who, among other things, levels acres of cedar trees on his quest for fame.

If the tree could talk, then, it wouldn't tell stories about the good old days. But it might complain about how much worse things had gotten. How to understand exactly what has changed?

It's just one of the questions obliquely posed by Memory Rings (coming to the BAM Harvey Theater, Nov 17—20), the newest work from Phantom Limb Company, led by Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff.

A nearly wordless cautionary tale marrying puppets, fairy tales, and literary nods (including Gilgamesh) with Google searches and selfie sticks, Memory Rings plots a surreal course through what it sees as humanity’s increasingly alienated bond with the natural world. Part of Phantom Limb’s environmental trilogy—which included 69º S., a series of tableaux vivants inspired by Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic voyage—it uses the forest as a frame for our species’ solipsism, creating a space where, in the words of the creators, we can “sit with our apprehension, our grief, our foolishness, and our hope.”

The title refers to the growth rings used to date trees—cryptic traces of time reminding us that nature, at least in an anthropomorphic sense, has long borne witness. “The tree is a living record of everything that has transpired during its history," Sanko and Grindstaff write, "standing in mute testimony of civilization’s encroachment.”

Photo: Sierra Urich
Throughout Memory Rings, old man tree quietly observes from center stage—the fixed point around which the millenia revolve. In the opening, all is well in the forest. A man-deer wakes from its bed of pine in a bucolic eden, where plants and animals seem as one. A menagerie of other creatures dance around the tree, evoking the cyclical time of nature and memory rings themselves. Symbiosis seems to rule the day as the humans wait in the wings.

But then things get more complicated. A fox scratches its back on the trunk, and tree becomes tool. It poses for a group selfie with its animal friends, and tree becomes scenery. The tree begins to give.

In another series of vignettes, culture itself seems to do the distancing. As a flash flood threatens, three men Google for advice before distracting themselves with a cloying rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.” From their presumable house of bricks, pattycake cuteness disarms both predator and storm.

Later on, when a puppet reenactment of “Little Red Riding Hood” presents the wolf in another guise, we’re reminded that there, too, culture can distance even as it comforts; nature is a threat only insofar as it can stand up to valiant woodsmen. As the slain wolf is dragged off stage by a group of animated pine trees, we pity it.

And yet ultimately, Memory Rings is more dream than didacticism, owing largely to the wordless way these vignettes play out. If there are suggestions of a simple man vs. nature narrative, they are quickly complicated. Human actors slip into and out of their bestial guises, blurring the line between animal and man. A bird flits around chasing the sound of a cricket, only to realize it’s his ringtone. To be alienated from the Earth is to be alienated from some part of ourselves, it seems to say. We, mere wolves in human clothing.

Devoid of detailed features, Sanko’s puppets help to mediate between beast and human while also serving as theatrical tabula rasa. “The thing about a puppet that distinguishes it from an actor,” Sanko has said, “is that it has no history, no background and arguably, no inherent personality and no ego to get in the way. Thereby, it is simply a blank canvas for whatever the puppeteer’s intention is and for whatever emotion the onlooker is willing to project on it.”

A clue to what that intention is becomes clearer later on, when the bird finally answers its phone and it turns out to be Nietzsche. As the voice muses over the notion of eternal recurrence, itself a kind of memory ring, we are reminded of something else Nietzsche says: that “man is a rope tied between beast and overman [...] a bridge and not an end”

Puppets as übermenschen? Perhaps. As blank canvases for our projections, they allow us to imagine the other side of Nietzsche’s bridge, where future humans see tree and wolf as kindred spirits along a compassionate continuum.

Memory Rings comes to the BAM Harvey Theater November 17—20, and tickets are still available.

Robert Jackson Wood is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

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