Review

Inspired, enchanting puppet theater with a punch: the eco-themed 'Memory Rings'

It should come as no surprise that our species, increasingly cut off from the natural world, has become extraordinarily adept at tuning out the havoc it’s wreaking on the planet through climate change.

Humans, like most animals, are preoccupied with satisfying immediate needs. This is understandable, though an insufficient excuse for inaction given our culpability and capacity to adapt and change.

Phantom Limb Company, a marvelously inventive New York troupe that has a magician’s touch with marionettes, is part of a growing artistic movement to heighten environmental awareness through the arts. The company’s latest project, “Memory Rings,” presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance at Freud Playhouse this weekend, offered a multimedia fantasia on ecological themes.

A work of movement-theater, lyrically directed and designed by Jessica Grindstaff, the production enlisted a forest of woodland creatures in a collage of fables, fairly tales and epics depicting fraught encounters between humans and nature.

The second installment in a planned trilogy of works addressing the environment (the first, “69°S,” centered on Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition), “Memory Rings” was inspired by the “Methuselah” tree, a nearly 5,000-year-old California bristlecone pine that was once thought to be the oldest living tree.

This breathtaking longevity prompted Phantom Limb’s meditation on how our relationship to the natural world has changed over the millennia. The result is a kaleidoscopic review of the deforestation in “Gilgamesh,” the big bad wolf’s fate in Little Red Riding Hood story and the workaday routine of the Seven Dwarfs kited out like miners, with brief comic forays into our Google-crazed contemporary moment.

The astonishing puppetry and hypnotic original musical (both are credited to Erik Sanko, clearly a genius) were entrancingly coordinated. Indeed, the production’s flow was largely generated through visual and aural means.

The narrative flirted at points with becoming an illustrated version of “The Wind in the Willows,” especially when ensemble members in animal masks frolicked joyfully together.

The wilderness was sentimentalized, as though there were no struggle in existence. Deer roved with wolf, as birds fluttered in an innocent paradise. The only predator of note is mankind, which treats the planet as food and fuel for its insatiable quest for domination.

Competition for life is a biological principle, and human greed, which has ushered in what has been called the Anthropocene, an epoch marked by human-induced ecological calamity, is a fact of nature even as it actively destroys whole swaths of it.

Simple dichotomies weaken arguments and undermine consciousness and conscience. But perhaps it’s not wise to read the allegory of “Memory Rings” too literally.

Everything on stage was a work of human creativity. We saw the Methuselah tree assembled; we watched the performers don jaunty animal heads and prance around coated in pine needles; we marveled at the entrance of uncannily real miniature human beings, led by company members who seemed less alive by comparison.

Art and nature were so completely interwoven that it became impossible to tell them apart. Their fates, it is presumed, are similarly tied.

It was through the majesty of the design and Ryan Heffington’s dream-like choreography that the production spoke so eloquently and ardently to the current crisis. Darron L. West’s sound, Brian H. Scott’s lighting, Henrik Vibskov’s costumes and Keith Skretch’s video contributed to this magnificently integrated vision.

The web of life is under assault. Companies like Phantom Limb and Canada's Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes (also presented by CAP) have conscripted miraculous puppets in this battle to defend the biosphere, and they have proven to be an impressive fighting force.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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