The stage can transport an audience to places as imaginative as the African wilderness in the Lion King or back in time to France in the 1800s for Les Misérables. In the world premiere production of Grace, Or the Art of Climbing, the cozy, in-the-round set in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Space Theatre transforms from a South Florida garage to a climbing gym, and finally to the walls of Boulder’s Eldorado Canyon.
The plot of Lauren Feldman’s month-long production finds Emm (Julie Jesneck) returning to her childhood Miami home to live with her widowed father in the backlash of a failed relationship in Boston. In her depression, with a few less-than-gentle nudges from her father (John Hutton), she rediscovers the passion of her youth: rock climbing. Calloused hands and sore muscles expose the physical hurdles Emm must endure, but navigating the mental challenges of falling off the wall—and falling in her personal life—are the real hurdles.
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And she does this while everything moves: The stage is made of metal beams dotted with strategically placed climbing handholds. As the performance changes locations (garage, gym, Colorado), the climbing apparatus raises, lowers, and shifts.
Admittedly, prior to seeing the production, I was wary of how indoor rock climbing would keep my attention for more than 15 minutes. But as Emm’s father says in the play, “Climbing is an individual sport, with partners.” Your eyes will be busy looking for actors who are constantly entering the theater from portals around the 360-degree stage. And, while the climbing routes are nothing to write to Boulder about, the choreographed moves are seamless and graceful.
The play ends with the audience knowing what could be destined for Emm’s complete transformation. But the higher she climbs on the ever-moving climbing beams, the further she can tumble. It all comes down to how she handles the fall.
See it: Grace, Or the Art of Climbing runs through February 17 at the Space Theatre.
—Image courtesy of the Denver Center for Performing Arts, Jennifer M. Koskinen