It takes off with an intriguing premise and some theatrical magic, but The Highest Step in the World never quite soars.
A mash-up of stories of humankind’s obsession and fascination with flying and space, The Highest Step in the World includes real-life stories of Joseph Kittinger’s skydive from a height of 31,000 meters and Vesna Vulović’s miraculous escape from death after falling 10,000 metres without a parachute when the plane she was in exploded mid-flight. It also intertwines the Greek myth of Icarus and his father who fly using wings constructed from feathers and wax.
A one-man show, David van Belle is the narrator of the story and the numerous characters, taking on the bravado of Kittinger, the reluctance of Vulović and the joy of discovery in Icarus. He moves seamlessly through each and, even when he is just David van Belle, he is an engaging and natural storyteller.
The real star of the show though are its theatrics which have received much buzz, and for the most part they are spectacular. As we get our first taste of what the rigging that will suspend van Belle is capable of, the audience reaction is palpable. Any attempt at describing it though would be near impossible although “3D theatre” comes to mind.
Riggers Adrian Young and Chris MacPherson make it all seem easy, though working in multi-dimensions must be anything but simple. Court Brinsmead’s animations and motion graphics are at times stunning, especially as they are projected atop van Belle’s white flight suit.
But with the theatrics comes the risk (and I use this term purposely) that story becomes secondary. It isn’t until almost the last words from van Belle that we are told what were supposed to have seen, quite literally asking the audience “what are we willing to risk?” But until van Belle and fellow creator Eric Rose gets us there, we’re just not sure how all of these stories are connected other than examples of that collective obsession and fascination with flying and space.
With its narrative never pushing or providing hints towards that central idea it is difficult for us to see these people and their stories for what they really are; I would have much preferred to have been fully part of the journeys in The Highest Step in the World from the start.
Created by David van Belle and Eric Rose. A Gateway Theatre presentation of a Ghost River Theatre production. On stage at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre through October 26, 2013. Visit http://gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.