SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not a good sign when I start crying during the introduction of a show. Yeah, that happened . . . because the story behind Climbing with Tigers melted the ice around my heart, and I hope it does the same for you. In fact, nothing I can write here will truly capture the invisible magic that happens on and around the stage of this show. So, if you have kids take them to this show. If you don’t have kids, take yourself.
Climbing with Tigers originates from the Red Fred Project, a project founded by Dallas Graham, with the mission of writing stories with children who face critical illness. (Visit Redfredproject.com for more information.) The script is written by Troy Deutsch, based on the book by Nathan Glad and Graham. This production is performed in collaboration with the Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory and Salt Lake Acting Company, and is a shining example of what can be created when so many fantastic organizations come together.
At the beginning of this performance, the narrator, played by Robert Scott Smith, tells the audience that in this play things are not what they seem. The audience needs to put on their magic eyes and let their imaginations connect the dots. Smith then proceeds to demonstrate a series of performing skills that show not only how versatile and skilled he is as an actor, but that a hat can be whatever he wants it to be, and an umbrella can be used to shift time. The smallest and quietest of movements performed by Smith, delivers the biggest impact and clarity because there is so much thought and meaning behind each one. He is a dancer, a singer, and the audience’s personal guide through the story, all heightened and highlighted by a carefully executed sound design by Adam Day.
Smith asks the audience about their limitations, what they gave up without trying, and then proceeds to introduce a little black bird named Blue. Blue is an animated bird that is projected on semi-realistic images of the world, and then finally a fairly ordinary tree in the front yard of a fairly ordinary house. The digital artist and animator, Jarom Neumann, incorporates Blue, a gang of colorful birds, and images into the overall production with ease and simplicity. The animation and projections helps to move the story in space and time, and ultimately enhances the idea of direction in a world that could have been disorienting.
After meeting the animated version of Blue, a real-life Blue, played by Austin Archer, bursts out onto the stage. And while Archer looks nothing like the animated version of Blue, he fits the personality perfectly, complete with glasses, ripped skinny jeans, and a cage like body structure over his shirt. Costume designer Rodney Cuellar works in conjunction with the overarching theme of Climbing with Tigers: that what is said—and the wonders of theatre—do not have to mirror what should be. For example, Cuellar costumed Dred Fred to merely hint at a bird, in disguise as a dragon, with feathers and goggles and a hand held fog machine.
Smith not only plays the narrator, but also Dred Fred and the Tiger. There is a part in the show where Smith tells the story of the Tiger and his magical tail, and Smith and Archer are completely in sync with their gestures and acting, enhanced by Jesse Portillo‘s lighting design, that the impact of the tale fills the theatre. The set, designed by Thomas George, allows the actors to perform on different levels, and has openings to enable the actors to jump in and out of the projected images. The play culminates in Blue climbing up the tree, and inside a projected moon, the set opens to show the tops of a tree and a giant puppet tiger head, manipulated by Smith. Despite all of the other spectacular things in the show, it’s worth it to go just to see the puppet.
Blue has overcome his brittle bones, both psychologically and physically, and demonstrates that limitations are only bone deep and fears are the stuff of imagination. Director Alexandra Harbold focuses in on the specifics of the show so well that her work is versatile to all ages. As a result, Climbing with Tigers is a must-see show. So, buy a ticket, go to the theatre, have fun, and support our tremendous theatre community and this beautiful, moving show.