I hesitate to write about the Phantom Limb Company of New York because their work is so vast and ambitious. It makes me feel small. But today, I’m only exposing you to a single four-minute piece of weird, original and brilliant puppetry by composer, musician, puppeteer and co-director of the company, Erik Sanko, made especially for video.
The piece is framed by absurdity: a female voice doing a count-down—except that the numbers are all mixed up and go nowhere. Then we see the feet of a hanged man, who turns out to be a marionette amid a host of marionettes in an empty, cluttered (but comfortable) studio. And then a hunched long-nosed, grey-faced puppet in a formal black coat is bent like an inspector over a newspaper on a workbench that is covered with objects—a jar of buttons, puppet heads, random tools, a time piece. No one speaks, but rhythmic hurdy-gurdy music plays. A human enters, whose face we never see: he sits and sands a puppet head, while a marionette crosses the floor, tugs at his pant leg to get his attention, and gives him a tool. A small excited marionette tries to communicate something important to the long-nosed one, jumping around, waving his arms and legs; his interlocutor listens and turns away. The show then dissolves into radio static and a female voice saying “foxtrot, foxtrot”. And the credits roll.
I love this piece. It’s disquieting in all the right ways. It plays with different levels of reality—or more accurately, unreality. There’s no story, and the conventional power relationship between puppeteer and puppet does not exist; indeed the puppets and the human being live on exactly the same level of reality. Maybe objects, and the space itself, are more real than either. It’s as close to meaningless as a work of art can come. It’s beautiful, in a lonely way.