Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The KC Four: Up

This is the closest I can come to a relevant photo. It's from the 2009 Syracuse Stage production of Up, in which Christopher DuVal appeared (though not in this photo.) DuVal directed the University of Idaho production, featured at the region 7 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The other play that some readers may have seen before was Up, by American playwright and TV writer Bridget Carpenter, presented at HSU by the University of Idaho. It is one of several works inspired by the true story of Larry Walters, who soared to 15,000 feet in the air in a lawn chair tethered to weather balloons. To further confuse matters, its subtitle--“The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair--” is the title of an apparently different play. (It also has nothing directly to do with the recent Pixar film called Up.) This play takes place 15 years after that flight, when “Walter” is searching vainly for his second act, while life goes on for his wife (a postal worker and chief breadwinner) and teenage son.

It’s been produced several times, including at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2006, where I saw it. It’s likely where the Idaho director, Christopher DuVal also saw it. He was acting at OSF that year—I saw him play Aytolycus in The Winter's Tale. He later acted in the 2009 Syracuse Stage production of Up.

As the play opens, Walter is working on a new invention, desperately seeking inspiration and support from another dreamer—Philippe Petite, then in the news for walking a tightrope between the Manhattan Twin Towers. Meanwhile his wife Helen supports the family by walking a postal route. Their teenage son Mikey meets the new girl in school, a smart and sunny outsider with a dark past, glorying in her pregnancy. She lives with her Aunt Chris, who involves Mikey in her home-based sales business.

Maybe because I’ve been seeing a lot of older multi-act plays forced into today’s two-act structure, I found myself especially impressed by how Carpenter ends the first act, with a promising moment of bliss: Mikey had made a lot of money from Aunt Chris, he and Maria are in love and he’s volunteered to be a father to her child. Even Walter is cheerfully going off to work each day and bringing home the bacon.

It’s not how you’re supposed to end the first act, which is with some crisis to entice the audience back to see the resolution. But this works in the odd way the whole play works. Emotionally, you are thrilled because everything is coming up roses, so you start intermission with good feeling. Yet there’s also nowhere to go but down, and you have to know that there’s an entire act to come, and probably lots of trouble ahead. So the expectation of the crisis that needs to be resolved is there, even if the crisis is just potential, just implied in the fact that this is a two act play.

And of course the second act reveals that little is as it seems, and every character hurts another. But by now, we care for these characters—or at least one of them. The teenage son (Mikey) changes more visibly than any other character (to Michael). This is a great acting role, and the actors in both productions I saw (Phoenix Tage for Idaho) made the most of it, winning audience affection with the gangly teen of the first scenes, through his transformations and trials.

If memory serves (and by now it’s mostly feeling memory), affection for the other characters was mixed at OSF. Audience loyalties divided on Walter the dreamer vs. Helen the responsible if disillusioned and perhaps distant wife. There was similar ambivalence about Maria, the unwed mother-to-be. But in the Idaho production, all of these characters were sympathetic.

That’s how they were played, aided by the rest of the production. The sets at OSF were more detailed and realistic—a fully equipped kitchen, a realistic living room for Aunt Chris. The portrayals also seemed to go deeper into drama, into character and relationship flaws, particularly in the wife Helen, and her seemingly quirky habit of referring to her “real husband” and “real family” when her actual husband and son weren’t living up to her expectations. There was more pain and portent in this production.

The Idaho set was simpler, more symbolic, and dominated by a luminous sky blue backdrop. The characterizations were equally luminous, seemingly bathed in sunlight. As Maria, Brittany Brook was especially ethereal, almost saintly. But this otherworldly, lit-from-within quality was in all the characters, with the exception of Aunt Chris. The fall for the family was violent, but this transcendent quality seemed to reappear immediately.

As the director’s notes indicate, the Idaho production explores the act of dreaming—a spiritual act that gives meaning to a person’s life—within the context of everyday demands and relationships. The metaphor of flight, of transcendence, is inherent in Walter’s great ascending moment, just as the metaphor of balance is suggested by the tightrope walker, who appears now and then in imagined dialogue with Walter. (This was the part that director DuVal played in Syracuse, played here by Nicholas Witham.)

But one of the student reviewers suggested another idea: drifting. Walter went up in his balloon-tethered lawn chair, but he also drifted through the air, and his life since then has been a kind of drifting, in search of another defining act. Drifting of that kind is often an essential part of creativity, and the one that causes the most trouble.

Almost everything the family had at the beginning of the play was lost by the end, including their home and their illusions. Their re-starting point was Walter’s original dream, by now a memory. In the OSF production, the function of saving the scene of his triumph for the end seemed mixed: nostalgia, lost youth and faith, as well as possible renewal. The Idaho production, especially through the luminous portrayals, was clearly focused on renewal. But it still can’t be called a happy ending.

Seeing it for the second time, I admired Up more as a play. It presents compelling characters and narratives, and for the most part interweaves them effectively. The characters and situations are recognizable—even archetypal-- and yet not predictable. They are believable even when a bit fantastic. It's a big enough play to allow these different interpretations, with their respective rewards. It’s one of those plays that raises more questions than it answers.

As several of the student reviewers noted, the Idaho production had some timing and audibility problems related to this new staging in a larger space. This was a common problem. Xtigone was originally designed for a thrust stage, not the proscenium of the Van Duzer. The Time Machine probably had the most radical change—born in a 100 seat theatre, where the audience was immersed in the action, it made the transition to a larger space and only then to the much larger Van Duzer stage.

Still, in terms of technical and scenic demands, Up was by far the simplest of the four productions. While the actors were very good, they also had very good characters to play. Combined with a play that’s been refined and tested, it’s no surprise that Up was the production that got “held”: sent on to the national judges who will consider it as one of the four or five plays out of the eight regions that will be produced at the Kennedy Center in April.

Here's my brief review of the OSF production of this play:

Up, by Bridget Carpenter, is being produced for only the second time anywhere. Set in today’s San Pedro, its central character is a man (played by Richard Howard) who once became famous for attaching weather balloons to a lawn chair and soaring to airliner height (based on a true incident), but is still searching for something as fulfilling for his life’s work. He adopts as his inspiration the Frenchman (played by U. Jonathan Toppo) who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974 (also a real incident.)

 But the play is as much about his wife (a letter-carrier whose faith in him is waning under financial pressure, played by Terri McMahon) and teenage son (John Tufts), who befriends a pregnant teenage girl (Christine Albright) new in town, and her deep-drawling, tarot-reading, entrepreneurial aunt (Robin Goodrin Nordli.)

 Crisply directed by Michael Barakiva, with energetic and pitch-perfect performances, the play is very funny, so you might not realize until later that every character did something very cruel to another. Playwright Carpenter worked on the play specifically for this production and it takes wonderful advantage of the capabilities of the 300-seat New Theatre, with panels flying open and the tight-wire over the suburban kitchen. The ending is a problem, but it’s an involving and provocative play throughout.

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