"Up” is not just the Academy Award-winning animated movie. “Up” is also a play by Bridget Carpenter, first produced in 2002 and now in previews at Bristol Riverside Theater. The production opens on Thursday, March 18. The subtitle of the play — “Up: The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair” — refers to an incident in the 1980s, when a California man tied a bunch of weather balloons to his lawn chair, got in, and floated over the city. This actual event gave Carpenter a starting point for “Up.”
“The play is going to hit home to a lot of people,” says scenic designer Ramon Tatarowicz. “I think everybody. movie star or just anyone, hits a high point in life and says, ‘Is this it?’” How far up is up? How many times can one be up? At a class reunion, the high school star athlete says, “It was all down hill from there.” For the Man in the Lawn Chair, his flight was his defining moment, never to be topped in his lifetime. “The author has fictionalized what happened later for him and his family,” says Tatarowicz.
For the designer, the challenge was to think vertically rather than the usual horizontal point of view. “The difficulty with the set for the play is that it moves rapidly between various locations in southern California, cinematically moving between scenes,” Tatarowicz says, “and yet at a moment’s notice, the focus moves vertically.”
A unique feature of the set is quite literally up: a high wire that an aerialist can actually walk. “High wires are under a tremendous amount of tension to hold up a person,” says Tatarowicz. “We had to check out the structural plans for the building to find the structural beam of the theater itself, and then cut into the stage wall to find the beam and anchor the wire directly into the beam.”
Up on this high wire is the character Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who gained his biggest notoriety by walking a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center. This role marks the acting debut of circus artist Kyle Driggs. When the director and designer conferred with staff at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts regarding the engineering needed to mount the high wire, they also asked if there was anyone there who could walk it in the play. Driggs got the job.
Though the wire is 10 feet high and 20 feet long, Driggs assures me, “There is no danger of falling. I’m wearing a harness attached to another wire rigged above.” Not only does this production give Driggs his first job as an actor but Petit is also one of his idols. “He is an icon in the world of circus.” This also gives this first-time actor a chance to speak with a French accent.
Just 19 years old, Driggs has a lot of “ups” to look forward to, but one in his past has to be discovering his passion for circus arts, especially juggling. When he was little his family took him to see Cirque de Soleil. “The whole production swept me off my feet, and I was absolutely blown away by the juggler in the show,” says Driggs. “What child doesn’t want to run away and join the circus?” Fortunately, his family bought him a juggling set. So he stayed home.
Since age 13, he has been dedicated to juggling, practicing three or four hours a day. “It began to consume my life,” he says. An only child, his parents have encouraged him to follow his dream and are rewarded with a son who is “making his own living” at 19. His mom works for a jewelry magazine; his dad designs websites.
The control necessary for a juggler inspires him. “I’m not really a stunt man. I don’t like danger. I like control and small, minute, interesting feats.” He teaches juggling at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. His next goal: to go to a circus school in Canada and “expand my craft.”
Tatarowicz has more life stories as not only is he older than Driggs, he also leads a double life. During his high school years in Bayonne, New Jersey, he was involved with school shows (as was his classmate Nathan Lane). At the University of Scranton he proceeded with dual goals — majoring in biology and doing stage work for community theaters at the same time. He earned a degree in biology, another one in biochemistry, and at the same time earned his union card for stage hands and designers. Then, on to St. George School of Medicine in Granada, West Indies, all the while, hopping back and forth from classroom to stage. “Other people trying to make it in theater waited tables to pay the bills; I did pap smears,” says Tatarowicz, a board certified ob/gyn who currently, when he isn’t designing, also runs the ob/gyn services at the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton.
This is his second design project for Bristol Riverside, having done their recent “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Most of his work has been for Off Broadway theaters in Manhattan, including several designs for the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater. He is particularly happy to be working at Bristol Riverside as it is near to Titusville where he and his wife live. “There’s always been a duality in my life,” he says, perhaps following the lead of his father who is a butcher/sausage maker and also builds welded steel sculpture and stained glass pieces. “I inherited that creative gene from him.”
Both of his careers are notorious for high stress. However, during the week of technical fine tuning for each play, he reports, “I’m the calmest one. I remind everyone, ‘No one is going to die.’ If I choose the wrong color, it’s not a fatal choice.” Up next for him is the set for the 20th anniversary revival of “Closer Than Ever” by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, a co-production of Bristol Riverside with the Queens Theater in the Park. Maltby is directing this revival of his revue that garnered the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off Broadway Musical during the 1990 award season. “Working with Maltby himself is a wonderful opportunity,” says Tatarowicz. A definite “up.”
Up, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Preview, Wednesday, March 17; opening night, Thursday, March 18, 8 p.m. Drama by Bridget Carpenter. $29 to $37. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.