1/25/2019 K2 Catalyst Arts Atlanta
*** ( B )
Winds howl as temperatures remain stubbornly further below zero than humans are designed to withstand. Two men lie stranded on an icy ledge, one with a broken leg, the other with an injured shoulder. They don’t have enough rope to effectively escape. The venue itself remains frigid, though we are issued optional blankets, sleeping bags, coats. Mists drift through the lights and the howling wind loop remains constant, making it feel so much colder.
Such is the set-up for Catalyst Arts Atlanta’s immersive staging for Patrick Meyer’s 1983 play, K2, a play being given a wonderfully creative and effective production, but a script that hasn’t aged well, and that was clunky and contrived to begin with.
The “immersion” could be said to begin early. Staged at southwest Atlanta’s “The Bakery,” GPS essentially told me “your destination is on your left,” when all that was there was a fence and darkness. A break in the face crudely labeled “The Bakery” assured me that, yes, this is the place. We are ushered into a “Base Camp” Sherpa’s tent, heated by a Kerosene space heater, with the wind sound loop already freezing our senses. The program is a poster board by the tent flap that leads to the playing area.
The original production scored a Tony Award for its set and rightly so – it was essentially a sheet of ice extending above the arch and below the pit (I think I still have the American Theatre magazine that featured it on its cover). Here, though, the warehouse ceiling is (fairly) close, and the floor is impenetrable cement, so scenic designer (and director) Barrett Doyle chose to create a stylized “jungle gym” of metal bars that reflect light in impressive ways and that provide easier (and I presume safer) support for when Taylor (Joel Coady) has to “climb the wall.” Which he does three times.
And that’s my first problem with the script. There’s very little opportunity for “things to happen.” The characters realize their only hope is to go back up the ice wall to recover a rope left behind, and use it to limp their way back to Base Camp. That’s it. Attempt one fails. Attempt two results in a near disaster. And yet a third climb is made to recover the screws left behind, and that leads to another near fatal mis-step. The second character, Harold, cannot move so he stays stationary throughout.
What passes for dramaturgy here are a series of stories and philosophical/scientific monologues as Taylor wends his way up the set. Because Harold is, in effect, dying, and he has the bulk of the “storytelling,” the monologues are slow, measured, and totally lacking in emotion. Dan Ford – who, to be fair, is very good at portraying a man in extremis – gives the same emotional weight to a discussion of Quantum Physics as he does to a story about the birth of his son. I haven’t decided if this basal monotony is because of the script or because of the performance – I suspect the former. It got to the point that, anytime another climb was about to happen, I gave a silent wince knowing we’d have to endure another long (and basically pointless) monologue.
Mr. Coady, in contrast, is a ball of energy, attacking his ordeal with verve and determination. Yes, his stories of his “before” life are a litany of “toxic male attitudes” that these days are incredibly “tone deaf” – he is an asshole to women, plain and simple. But he commits fully to the role, including a beautiful improv on opening night when a critical prop accidentally falls from his coat when he was near the ceiling.
Another big part of the contrivance is the friendship of the two men – Harold is a research scientist and Taylor is a District Attorney. It’s easy to imagine them becoming friends in earlier expeditions, but I find it hard to imagine them as friends in “real life.” The protestations of affection at the end ring hollow, and the final resolution could just as easily have happened at the beginning.
And, rather than talking about mortality and risk and life in general or even about the emotional high one feels at such altitudes, they talk about physics and picking up “girls who just want to have fun.” Before the audience is seated, a “Sherpa” gives a speech about the mountain, and about what the French call “l'appel du vide,” the “Call of the Void.” It’s that feeling we get on a precipice when the desire to just take off and fly Irresistibly beckons. Here we see two climbers, stranded on an icy (and very small) ledge, a fall of hundreds of feet mere millimeters away. And they never feel this (or at least they never talk about it).
Adding to the pretention, there is no curtain call, and the cast remains on stage in their final positions, so the audience has to be told, “it’s over.”
But, man oh man, is the piece ultimately effective. The constant howl of the wind, the frigid temperatures of the venue, the truly effective lighting (by Maranda DeBusk), and the shivering performances from the actors, all made me want to forgive the monologues (the physics of which, BTW, are almost 40 years out of date) and the “politically incorrect” Taylor rants. My “willing suspension of disbelief” flourished despite the non-realistic “ice wall.” And Mr. Coady’s three trips up the wall are edge-of-the-seat thrilling. And, in the final analysis, the extreme conditions of the characters chilled me to the bone.
In his review of the 1991 movie version of this play, Roger Ebert spent most of his column ranting about the clichés of the “mountain climbing” sub-genre of adventure plots, ending by saying, “If Mountain Climbing is so wonderful, why have there been no movies about a successful expedition?” A fair point (until one remembers the documentary “The Man Who Skied down Everest”), but it’s also a betrayal of his own personal likes and dislikes. And to be fair, I have the same attitude towards boxing movies. In rebuttal, let me say that drama is built on failure – alright, you’ve failed, now what do you do?
Apparently, Mr. Meyer thought the best answer to that question is “Let’s talk about physics and chicks.” I have to wish there is a better script in such a situation.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #CatalystK2)