Andy Warhol once pronounced that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Theatre Pro Rata’s “Up: The Man in the Flying Chair” explores that conceit and the lengthy trail of wreckage that fleeting celebrity can leave in its wake.
Bridget Carpenter’s play is loosely based on the true story of Larry Waters, who achieved his moment in 1982 when he attached 45 weather balloons to a lawn chair and sailed 16,000 feet into the air. Walter Griffin, the central character here, carried out a similar feat and now, 15 years later, still tinkers endlessly to invent the next big thing that will bring him fame and fortune.
John Middleton imbues the role with a searing intensity that communicates Walter’s obsession. It’s a carefully wrought portrait of narcissism, as he demonstrates he’s willing to sacrifice even his own family in search of a story that will define his life beyond that long-ago 15 minutes.
Walter isn’t the only one looking for a new ending. His long-suffering wife, Helen (played with clenched and almost frenetic humor by Shanan Custer), dreams of an idealized family as she struggles to keep her real one on the rails. Her son Mikey (Keegan Robinson) roils with teenage angst as he seeks his own vocation. He’s befriended by a fellow student, Maria, played with brashly unselfconscious charm by Lillie Horton. Much like the father Mikey idolizes, Maria is a consummate storyteller whose airborne narratives are based more on fiction than fact. She’s paired with a con artist aunt (Noë Tallen), whose very living depends on spinning convincing lies.
Under Carin Bratlie Wethern’s direction, this family drama plays out against a backdrop of magical realism. Settings are created through fanciful illustrations projected across the back of the stage. The imaginary figure of Philippe Petit (Mark Benzel), who achieved his own 15 minutes traversing the World Trade Center towers on a tightrope, makes dreamlike appearances over the course of the play, performing feats of balance and dropping deep thoughts (“A bird does not carry a wallet”). Petit serves as Walter’s alter ego, blindly affirming his choices no matter the consequences.
Pro Rata’s strong ensemble provides some stellar moments as they balance the play’s textured interplay of humor and pain but they’re unable to completely offset the limitations of their material. Carpenter has created an intriguing and explosive dynamic in “Up” but fails to satisfactorily resolve it, ultimately leaving her characters floating in the air much like Walter’s battered lawn chair.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.