Ask a professor of ancient history for an explanation of the architectural history of theaters, and he might tell you the large, circular dancing space that is the centerpiece of all Greek theaters took its inspiration from the threshing circles that Greek farmers have used for the last three millennia. When asked the same question about the evolution of theaters in their city, New Yorkers would be sure to tell you about Disney's great makeover of Times Square: Boarded up for decades, several majestic theaters that were once home to vaudeville routines, plays and movies are now hosting Broadway musicals on their newly renovated stages.
But Denver boasts an even stranger story of theatrical metamorphosis: Thrillseekers Climbing Gym, which is located in a former adult-movie theater, is currently hosting an environmental-theater production of Patrick Meyers's Broadway play K2. In keeping with the porn palace's checkered past, the drama about two men trapped on the world's second-highest mountain (a 28,268-foot Himalayan peak called K2) is filled with adult language; one character even tells an XXX-rated story about a sex act. More important, however, director Justin Johnson takes full advantage of the South Denver structure's new identity as a climbing gym to create a thoroughly believable world that his actors inhabit with professional aplomb.
Taylor (Omer Pearlman) is a tough-talking lawyer with a sensitive demeanor who teams with Harold (R. Bradley Howell), a neutron-bomb scientist with a perverted imagination, to conquer the summit of K2. Located on the border between Pakistan and China, the steep and treacherous K2 presents a difficult technical climbing challenge to the two adventurers. Hypoxia and acute mountain sickness loom as omnipresent threats to their lives.
As the play begins, several orange and blue lights illuminate a tiny nine-by-five-foot raised platform that serves as the icy ledge on which Taylor and Harold sleep. Covered in snow, the two men slowly stir to the sound of howling winds. As they awake beneath a portion of ice that some theater-goers might mistake for a likeness of the Virgin Mary, Taylor says, "Alive--be alive!" and reaches over to check on Harold, who has suffered a broken leg on his descent from the summit. Though he's oxygen-starved, groggy and less ambulatory than Taylor, Harold has survived the bitterly cold night.
The men quickly realize that their escape from the mountain requires more than the one short rope in their possession; they determine that Taylor must climb back up the ice wall to retrieve a rope left behind on the summit. Ice hammer in hand, Pearlman makes his way up the central support pillar of the climbing gym and disappears behind a portion of scenery that represents another wall of ice. In order to keep them both alert, Harold sustains a running conversation with Taylor. Though the tone of the banter is initially playful and lighthearted, the two men eventually discuss serious life issues as they realize the gravity of their plight.
Playwright Meyers can't resist throwing in some unnecessary social commentary throughout the play. Side effects of altitude sickness notwithstanding, it's hard to believe that two men trapped at 27,000 feet would want to discuss race relations or socially progressive welfare reforms when confronted with their own mortality. Nevertheless, Howell and Pearlman effectively create a solid bond between the two characters that overcomes the script's obvious shortcomings.
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Moreover, Johnson directs the play with a profound sensitivity. Near the end of the play, Harold eloquently persuades Taylor to abandon him in favor of seeking help at a lower altitude--help that both men know will never reach Harold in time. It's a beautifully played moment of friendship that serves as a hopeful prelude to Harold's final, forlorn words about the human condition: "Hold on, hold on."
They're words that the walls of Thrillseekers have no doubt heard before.
K2, presented by IronCloud Productions through January 25 at Thrillseekers Climbing Gym, 1912 South Broadway, 861-5082.