By Jason Hagey
University of Utah Department of Theatre’s Up (The Man in the Flying Chair) brings to their Studio 115 stage a small cast of talented actors to express the ennui of our current era. It is accurate to say Up captures our modern zeitgeist: American culture’s incessant need for excitement and a nostalgia for an era that never was. Here we are in the 2010’s, encroaching upon the 2020’s, and Bridget Carpenter’s 2003 play takes us back to the middle-late 1990’s to show us who we are today and teaches us that when we are on the highwire, it is more likely that we will fall than we will fly.
Up is a mass of antinomic contradictions: paradoxes. Carpenter puts at either end of a tightrope concepts that are linked: prosperity/ruin, imagination/reality, love/hate, sanity/insanity, stability/instability, user/used, predator/prey, truth/lies, etc. The audience is put on the wire and then dared to walk that tightrope with the characters.
Carpenter is brilliant. Her play works a kind of magic – a collage of characters, moments, phrases – working together to create a feeling. University of Utah’s production is effortless in going between laughter, surprise, dread, and compelling narrative. The show digs deep into the essence of contemporary humanity, into the banal, the commonplace, the middle-class machinations of day-to-day work, school, and dreams, and it pulls out a long-dead heart, atrophied and twisted by rigor mortis.
Chris DuVal’s (director and head of the Actor Training Program) direction is nuanced and allows the actors to blossom into their characters. He spends the time that could have been put into spectacle to focus on relationships and intentions. The work DuVal has done is the kind that reveals the characters, opens up their souls to us, and invites the audience to feel the complexity of emotions throughout.
The Griffin household consists of a threesome: father, mother, and son. The father, Walter (Dominic Zappala), has found a muse in the real-life French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (PJ Volk), who became infamous for his walking between the Twin Towers in New York City back in 1974. Walter doesn’t know Petit, but he has imaginary interludes with a fictional version of him throughout the play. The mother, Helen (Kelsey June Jensen), is the desperate, grounded character who sees reality, is split between a love for her husband and the financial straits their family is in due to his negligence as a provider, and is thus torn between an imaginary family (“My real husband would…”) and the two men in her life. The son, Mikey (Louis Hillegass IV), is at a rite of passage moment in the play, a sophomore in high school who is discovering a jaded world in contrast to his father’s delusions, while finding that there are greater heights for him to fly than he ever knew possible.
Walter lives daily an obsession veering toward madness, all based on one moment, the moment sixteen years previous to the action of the play, when he took a lawn chair and tied several weather balloons to it and then took off into the air with his pregnant wife and mother-in-law standing below, watching him disappear. Likewise, Helen still watches his obsession making him disappear from the needs of his family. Walter fancies himself an inventor, but his ‘creations’ are nothing more than appropriations of found objects in the futile attempts to find a novel way to get back into the air.
The truth is, nothing he touches is original, and his attempts to fly again are drowned in unoriginality and pride. Vain and empty hubris is the engine to his madness. Again, like his balloons, he’s filled with nothing but hot air, a mere shell of a man hopped up on a cocktail drug of hopes and dreams, getting his fix on chemicals as useless and dangerous as heroin or cocaine. He lives on the tightrope, believing that someday he will fly, not fall.
Zappala portrays Walter with incredible sympathy. His performance captures the everyman that Walter is, and he comes across as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His PTSD, however, is not from Vietnam (where the character served in the Army) but from the flying chair event that now consumes his every thought. Zappala is fluid and natural, inhabiting his character, and comes across as believing his every intention to be good and noble, while frustrated that nobody else sees it quite like he does.
Not to be undeterred in having her own fantasies, Helen is mired in the ideal of the Griffin’s traditional family nucleus, and when she says some of her first lines, there is a poignant and disturbing attribution to her frequent statement, “My real husband…” or “My real family…” She’s very aware of what family she lives in, but she clings to an optimal and secure lifestyle always in mental and emotional discord with her reality. This prevents her from ever being able to realistically grapple with reality and her discourses throughout the show are punctuated by contempt, a longing for a prototypical family, and her expectation that her family (husband in particular) should be something different than he is. Carpenter points up to this fact early on when Walter chides Helen that she chose him as much as he chose her. The statement, while undeniably true and thus should be an anchor to their relationship, is patently false.
As many do, we marry something that we have contrived in our minds rather than the actual person. It is evident by Helen’s all-too-human consternation that she did not fully realize the delusion she was under when she became romantically involved with Walter. The brutal reality confronts Helen and she is hoisted up onto the highwire, where she must perform without falling a thousand feet below.
Kelsey June Jensen does the most important thing for her character with the greatest of aplomb: she has both affection and disdain for her husband. This is no small feat. It is easy to be one or the other, but having both present from the beginning – to be believable as a wife who loves her husband but is hugely frustrated with him – shows Jensen’s depth of expression and versatility.
Mikey loves to see his father’s passion, often defending him to his mother, while he leads an otherwise blasé life of school, like so many fifteen-year-olds do. There is nothing remarkable about him. The fancies of his father provide a similar drug to Mikey, who heroizes his father, as sons often do. The lawn chair represents a hope, a dream, as much for Mikey as it does his father. At the beginning of the play, the chair is Mikey’s vicarious way of hoping for himself. Like the lawn chair in midair, Mikey is directionless. At fifteen, this doesn’t matter as much as the belief that someday he will be somebody.
When he meets Maria (Emily Nash), a new girl at school, on the first day of his sophomore year, MIkey is immediately taken with her and invites her over for dinner at his house. Maria is about six months pregnant, also a sophomore, and lives with her Aunt Chris (Ashley K. Patlan) because her mother is a negligent drunk. Maria and Chris present a paradoxical contrast to Mikey’s traditional family nucleus, and he finds both refuge and purpose in the nontraditional nature of their family. Standing between the two, he is metaphorically like Petit, a man on a wire.
Hillegass brings out the inherent innocence of Mikey, seeming every bit the young man made by his parents. His eyes ring true with wonder and amazement at the world he is discovering, and equally with the pain and suffering reality begins to give him. I must say, the casting here is excellent – Hillegass is the necessary center of the story.
As Hillegass’ foil, there is a beautiful, doe-eyed and pristine nature to Emily Nash. Her ability to speak with frankness while being simple, with pure enthusiasm for life, brings Maria to life and makes her actual intentions hard to read, showing the diversity of Nash. Patlan (who also plays Helen’s mother in flashbacks) has a solid diversity between characters and plays them both well. Patlan’s Aunt Chris is a delight, not because her character is effervescent but because she is stark reality – she tells you how it is without apology. To round out the cast, Volk has an understated style that befits Walter’s Petit, making his words more important than a possible showman personality he could have had instead. Volk’s balance to the insanity, with his careful, thoughtful delivery, make Petit come across as more profound than he really is.
Those who know about flight understand that there are opposite, or opposing, forces necessary to flight: lift and weight, thrust and drag. To fly, all four forces are necessary. To keep a straight flight there must be an equal balance between them; lift must equal weight, thrust must equal drag.
For Walter, to fly is merely to have greater lift than weight. His chair takes him up into the air and thus he is “flying” when he is merely floating. Because he denies the need for thrust and drag, there is no direction, therefore no real flight. In essence, Walter represents lift and weight. Helen is representative of thrust and drag. She’s looking for a direction, a way to get things moving in life. She wants Walter to find some thrust or forward momentum. The financial realities of life, the stuff that Helen cares about, represent the drag. Walter doesn’t see this as flying because he’s so fixated on lift. Helen denies the need for lift, the dreams that Walter has, and therefore she isn’t yet flying either. Mikey is learning, on his own, what it means to fly and the very real danger of crashing.
Up transports us into simple dream-like sequences that heighten the reality that we are all living in a melancholy malaise. As Obama’s Audacity of Hope and Trump’s MAGA movement both captured our popular imagination, Up bares that notion like a trickster, shredding away the idea that things were better ‘then’ and shows that we are all in a self-destruct mode in hopes of something that never existed: greatness. We see the nakedness of our predicament, that our hopes of greatness are as filled with hot air as Walter Griffin’s weather balloons.
As you might guess, the University of Utah’s production of Up (The Man in the Flying Chair) will have you talking about it all the way home. The many philosophical premises, the paradoxes and questions about reality and the place of hope and dreams, will keep you thinking for days.
Note: Play includes adult language and minor adult situations.
University of Utah Department of Theatre presents Up (The Man in the Flying Chair) by Bridget Carpenter
Studio 115, 240 South 1500 East in the Performing Arts Building directly west of the University Bookstore
March 9-11, 15-17 7:30 pm, matinee March 17 2:00 PM
Tickets: General: $18, UofU Fac/Staff, Seniors (60+)/Military: $15, Free for UofU students with valid student ID, Students: $8.50
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