— Production poster
THE HIGHEST STEP IN THE WORLD
Gateway Theatre opens its 2013/14 season with a show from Calgary that features some remarkable technical effects and one pretty good story. It seems a curious mainstage opener, though—a one-act one-person show. This is a trend this year on Vancouver area stages: stripped down solo shows of the sort usually associated with fringe festivals, repackaged as subscription season material.
Ghost River Theatre’s The Highest Step in the World isn’t entirely stripped down, although the stage is empty but for a chair and a screen for projections. An elaborate rigging mechanism allows David van Belle, who co-wrote the show with director Eric Rose, to fly out over the audience, do mid-air acrobatics, and otherwise vividly enact the theme of humans flying—and falling from great heights.
Van Belle opens the show speaking directly to the audience as himself. The primary story he will tell, and enact, involves a man named Joseph Kittinger who in 1960 jumped out of a hot air balloon at 102,000 feet to test a new kind of survival suit. Freefalling to 18,000 feet, at which point his chute opened, he set a freefall record of four and a half minutes, which still stands today. It was an insane feat given the relatively primitive technology, and van Belle gives it, and Kittinger, full value in his passionate, entertaining, and somewhat terrifying performance.
Kittinger’s story is intercut with two others. Vesha Volovic was a Serbian flight attendant whose plane was blown up at 33,000 feet in 1972 by a terrorist bomb. She somehow survived the fall, the longest on record. The other story van Belle performs is the myth of master inventor Daedalus, who made wings for himself and his son Icarus. When Icarus flew too near the sun, melting the wax that held his wings, he fell into the sea and drowned. Van Belle does these three characters with accents. Other than that, their stories lack the theatricality and human interest that makes Kittinger’s tale so compelling. The Daedalus-Icarus subplot feels particularly like filler.
It’s hard to know what theme the show is aiming at, given that two of the stories chronicle intentional falls and the third an accidental one. I would have preferred a more fully fleshed out play about Kittinger alone, utilizing additional actors. But hey, that’s not the play these guys wrote.
The Highest Step in the World is technically adept and sometimes beautiful. Ben Chiasson (projection design), Court Brinsmead (animation and graphics design), and Ami Farrow (set, costumes, lighting) should get equal credit with the performer. So, too, should the uncredited sound designer and whoever designed the rigging.
This is multi-dimensional theatre of a pretty high order. But it still doesn’t fill that big Gateway stage.