There’s something undeniably sexy about Manifest Destiny. Possession, consumption and the wild promise of the unknown are desires that, like it or not, are deeply engrained in the American spirit. Thomas Paine argued in 1776 that the American Revolution would give our infant nation “the power to begin the world over again…the birthday of a new world is at hand…” This statement resonates deeply with the traumatic experience of today’s ecocrisis. Wouldn’t it be divine if we could just escape and start over in a new world?
The narrative of L.A.-based collective Cloud Eye Control’s Under Polaris, which follows a scientist named Anna Oxygen on a perilous voyage, is a cross-media romp that gives its audience a full-on “get out of jail free” card to explore our deeply rooted American hunger for exploration, danger and conquest. The production indulges in the fantasy and horror of that final earthly frontier: the North Pole. And despite the familiarity of this premise (let’s save the future of humanity by embarking on a wild quest!), this stunning visual collaboration is a deeply pleasurable way to experience theater’s unique capability to help us escape our overwhelming times.
The real glory of this hour-long performance is its ability to wow the audience visually through wonderfully simple means. Who knew that projecting layers of snow images on a set of curtains could so deftly produce the effect of being trapped in a blizzard? How does a piece of a cardboard instantly become a canoe traveling the chopping north seas? Because of the piece’s powerful fusion of cinema, song and movement, we deeply want to believe. The simple illusions immerse us completely in the fantasy of exploration.
Yet it is impossible to walk away from Under Polaris without feeling a bit let down. The show has received a fair amount of critical flack for being over-experiential and under-intellectual. I would argue, however, that the real problem with the work is that Under Polaris makes light of a journey that should challenge the audience in a deeply emotional way. In the most disturbingly misguided moment of the show, performer/composer Anna Oxygen does a cutesy dance with a polar bear before stripping the beast of his claws and taking them for herself. This kind of directional choice, rampant throughout the piece, constantly undermines the gravity of the journey and the emotional life of the female scientist. Too often we feel like this is playtime. Too often the production reminds us that it’s all just make believe. I want the journey to move me, to scare and delight me. It’s all fun, all the time, when it could be deeply profound. Even the dark moments feel grey.
The potent imagery of Under Polaris, combined with the gorgeously chaotic rock opera soundtrack, takes us deep into suspended reality. But why not challenge us to feel more, once you’ve already got us there?
Kate Watson is an Austin-based writer, curator and artist. She is the cofounder of Circulatory System and a founding member of Austin Video Bee.