The Highest Step in the World Just a Step Short…

The Highest Step in the World

Ghost River Theatre

Until October 29 in the Victor Mitchell Theatre

That Ghost River Theatre’s The Highest Step in the World is an ambitious project is without question. Creating a one-man stage show with flying at its core is no easy task particularly within the confines of a theatre.

The production first premiered in 2010 at Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival. Given all the hype surrounding it at the time I went in with very high expectations for this show. As it turns out perhaps they were a bit too high. While The Highest Step in the World is generally enjoyable and interesting I think it falls a bit short of the build-up.

The show interweaves three stories that all deal with the concept of flight and the “necessity of risk.” The main story is that of Joseph Kittinger who parachuted from a balloon one-hundred – thousand feet from Earth in1962 in order to test some new parachute system.

Then there’s the story of airline stewardess Vesna Vulovic who survived a plane bombing and her subsequent fall from the sky in 1972.

Finally there’s the mythological tale of Daedalus and Icarus the father-son duo who used wings to escape their captivity from King Minos.

Performer (and co-creator along with Eric Rose) David van Belle does a fabulous job of portraying the various characters switching seamlessly between them. His performance is the show’s strength. In fact I found myself focusing on his face and the ease with which he can manipulate it to look markedly different.

Van Belle’s acting also lends the show a nice element of humour that isn’t scripted into the actual text. It’s just something about his friendly onstage presence that made me both smile and laugh.

Where the production falls a little short I think is in the element of spectacle which seemed to be the focus of the hype.

Sure video projections serve as backdrops to much of the action and van Belle “flies” onstage but truthfully these elements don’t seem all that exciting or mind-blowing. (Maybe that’s just because I’ve seen flight and multimedia onstage quite a bit in my viewing history and it has lost some of its excitement.) In fact I found a couple of the flight sequences thrown in and frankly not all that necessary as though they are included just to reinforce the show’s subject matter for the audience’s benefit rather than to advance the actual story.

Thank you show creators for including a couple of photos of the real Joseph Kittinger at the end of the production. I would have liked to have seen even more. Furthermore why don’t you include a photo of the real Vulovic as well?

While I find Kittinger’s and Vulovic’s narratives interesting — and Kittinger’s descent back to Earth after his jump from the edge of space particularly gripping — I could do without Daedalus and Icarus.

While it’s entertaining to watch van Belle portray Daedalus as a mad scientist with a heavy accent and Icarus as a young know-it-all punk I find that storyline the weakest in the show. The inclusion of a mythical tale alongside the true stories of Kittinger and Vulovic doesn’t do much for me.

Rather I would like to see more of van Belle’s personal narrative. I’d like to know more about his need to step out-of-the-balloon as it were because of some major changes in his own life that he only briefly references in the show.

The Highest Step in the World is entertaining. Like good theatre it has strong characters and dramatic stories at its core. In my opinion those are the show’s strengths rather than in any promise of spectacle.