Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see Sharon's review of Play Without Words
The play starts at its end. Mallory Falconer, who has journeyed to Everest to recover the body of her dead brother, has failed in her task. Deserted on an ice shelf with no means of escape, suffering broken ribs, exhausted, without food, with no way to contact help, and with nothing to keep her company but her brother's corpse, Mallory's options are somewhat limited. In a not-entirely-convincing theatrical device, she sees the ghost of her dead father, who asks her to recount the story of how she ended up at this point.
This seems to be a lousy way to start the play. The first act is then told through flashbacks. We see Mallory's brother die high on Everest, and we see Mallory decide to retrieve him. We see everyone explain to her what an impossible task this is; we see Mallory go anyway. We also see her put together her team and prepare for the trip. We see her faced with problems from the Chinese government in Tibet, and how she overcomes them. We see her visit a tarot card reader, who foretells catastrophe. Someday there will be a play where the fortuneteller is dead wrong, but, as we know from the opening scene, it isn't this one.
In fact, we know everything from the opening scene, which is why it seems to be such a bad choice. We know that, despite all roadblocks, Mallory will end up on Everest. We know that, no matter how impossible it seems, she will reach her brother, and bring him most of the way down the mountain. We know that a number of her companions will die on the journey (she even tells us how many). Opening the play with the result sucks all dramatic tension out of the play. And since the lengthy first act doesn't even have them start climbing, it seems interminable. We know all sorts of wonderful and horrible things are going to happen on the mountain, but the play frustratingly won't get there yet.
After seeing the second act, it is clear why Ahlin made every choice she made in the first act. And, although I think Ahlin might have written a more powerful play had she made some different second act decisions, that is not the play she chose to write. Ahlin laid everything out in the first scene because the issue of whether Mallory will succeed on her quest is really secondary to the story Ahlin is telling. Ahlin is focusing more on Mallory's spiritual journey than her physical one. The play isn't about whether Mallory can recover her brother's body; it's about whether her heart can let go of him. And that question is still open until the end of the play.
Taken on its own terms, Climbing Everest is a partial success. Its plot suffers from an awful lot of typical supporting characters and improbable coincidences. And yet, the play has some beautifully written lines, very nearly poetic, about the mysticism surrounding Everest and its call to climbers. And, despite all of its problems, the play still manages to score emotionally, leaving the audience drained and pondering life's choices. Part of the credit surely goes to Katie A. Keane, who, as Mallory, carries this play for its near-three-hour running time. She clambers all over the set, sometimes conveying a cocky self-confidence, and other times only despair and oxygen deprivation. But, throughout it all, Keane shows Mallory's emotional frailty. There are many things hard to believe about Mallory's physical journey in Climbing Everest, but Keane never gives us reason to doubt her emotional one. And that, as far as Ahlin's script is concerned, is all that really matters.
Climbing Everest runs at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through May 8, 2005. For more information, see www.colonytheatre.org.
The Colony Theatre Company -- Barbara Beckley, Artistic Director -- presents Climbing Everest by Margit Ahlin. Scenic Design by Yevgenia Nayberg; Lighting Design by Steven Young; Sound Design by Drew Dalzell; Costume Design by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Properties Design by Robyn Taylor; Production Stage Managers Alish Heistad; Marketing/Public Relations David Elzer/Demand PR. Directed by Al D'Andrea.