The Highest Step In The World – Review

Highest Step In The World

October 18 to 29, 2011

Pumphouse Theatre


When I moved here from Toronto (the centre of the Universe) a year and a half ago I was fearful that Calgary’s theatre scene would consist of safe classics, grating musicals and corny comedies. I soon realized that while yes, these types of plays do get put on here more than I’m used to; there is a good number of interesting companies producing distinctive and engaging shows. But to my mind, no one is better at mounting a totally unique and exquisitely creative piece of work than Ghost River Theatre. Their shows are not without their flaws and not every crazy idea they attempt works perfectly, but for my money I would always rather see one of their marvellously weird and wonderful multimedia shows over an impeccably performed “same old”.

After seeing a preview performance of Ghost River’s The Highest Step In the World this eve, I feel this more strongly than ever.The show originally premiered in February 2010 as part of Alberta Theatre Projectsʼ 24th Annual Enbridge PlayRites Festival of New Canadian Plays, was an instant hit with critics and won four Betty Mitchell Awards.  The company has now remounted the play for a short Calgary run before it goes on tour to St. Albert and beyond.

The show is marketed as  a meditation on the nature of risk based on the story of Captain Joseph Kittinger , who in 1960 leaped from a high-altitude weather balloon as part of a scientific program designed to test a new parachute system at the edge of space.  But really the play is about 3 stories, all of which have something to do with flight, or more specifically how or why someone in flight comes crashing back to earth.

In addition to Kittinger, we are introduced to Vesha Volovic, a Serbian air hostess who was the only survivor of an in-flight bomb and the world record holder for the highest fall without a parachute. We also meet a father and son who reveal themselves to be a modern interpretation Daedalus and Icarus – (Here’s a link if you need a mythology refresh ). But before any of these characters are introduced, we meet the performer himself, David van Belle, the star of this one man solo performance. Van Belle acts mainly as pop up narrator in the play letting us in on how the show was created, giving us information about the characters’ history or asking philosophic questions of the audience. He does at one point take on the role of a flying/crashing character himself in one small scene that is beautifully matter of fact about its rawness.

But perhaps more than the symbolism of flight/fall/crash that holds the play together is the imaginative and beautiful multi-media aspects of the show that not only mesmerize but actually assist with the plots and character changes. The effects are too many to mention and I don’t want to spoil the magic for you, but suffice it to say that little local theatre company Ghost River creates flight in this production that puts the most cash-infused performance of Peter Pan, Spiderman or Cirque du Soleil to shame. This in addition to some amazing video projections on the otherwise very bare stage and the ability to make a man no more than bones and a beating heart on stage go far to make sure the sense of wonder never runs out.

With such an ambitious technical production and a heady philosophical underpinning to the show, it’s hard not to have some trouble spots in the production, although they are very few in number. I found that of the three stories I was most interested in the Kittinger narrative both because it was the best acted and because it was the more interesting story. The modern-day Icarus plot, while cute in some of its language choices was just a tad histrionic for my taste and went on a little too long. Vesha’s story while interesting was played far too physically and vocally masculine at times for a female character. However neither of these issues mars the overall enjoyment of the performance.

The stories are unique, van Belle’s performance is strong, the writing, direction, sound, set design, graphics and video projection are all fantastic (kudos to the whole crew) and for me it was a mind-bendingly good way to spend 75 minutes of my time.



For the guys – Cool factor is HUGE in this. Flying and explosions and crazy inventors and more flying. SEE IT

For the girls – Don’t worry, this is not a techie geek fest of a play. The effects are wonderfully gorgeous and the Kittinger story will have you edge of your seat. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer –Definitely not a nice safe night in the theatre and it might be too alternative for your tastes. But you might be able to put aside the need for a straight narrative and instead enjoy watching a man fly for much of a production. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkies – It’s Ghost River doing what they do best. SEE IT

One comment

  1. chris Davis · October 19, 2011

    Great recommendation. Always knew GRT was the little engine that could.

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