An Air Balloon across Antarctica
nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
August 14, 2007
Playwright Darragh Martin notes that the inspiration for his play An Air Balloon Across Antarctica came, simply enough, from seeing a poster for a hot air balloon ride hanging next to one offering an Antarctic tour. And so, add a young female explorer and an overweight hamster to the balloon's basket and we are off on a journey through the frigid air that is more an exploration of grief and love than of the frozen continent.
The young explorer is Caitlin, who has made a life of adventure. What begins as a story of Caitlin's attempts to pass the time with her son's pet hamster, Ham (played with goofy charm by Jeff Brown), turns into Ham's recitation on the love story that brought Caitlin to Antarctica in the first place, interspersed with hallucinatory interactions with the exploration/aviation luminaries Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sir Robert Scott, and Amelia Earhart. So, we watch as Caitlin meets and falls in love with James (a well-underplayed Terence MacSweeny) and then watch their relationship break apart, sending Caitlin to the chilly skies, all the while tracking Ham's identity crisis: is he a hamster or a lemming?
So, yeah, there are plenty of quirks and wrinkles to this story to keep it floating along with moments of good fun. But all of the imagination put into the set-up for the events of Air Balloon does not trickle down into the story of Caitlin and James, which comes off as more predictable than one would like from a play with such fantastical elements.
That being said, the actresses playing the two Caitlins—the younger (Cooper Harris) and the older (Soneela Nankani)—both convey a brightness, an ain't-no-mountain-high-enough spirit, that makes her career as an adventurer just believable enough (despite neither actress being particularly rugged) to take interest in her adventures both in her life and in the world.
Martin serves his script very well as its director, varying the levels that the actors play on to keep in the audience's mind the weight of the distance between two people. And Kevin Connell's set design is quite striking, with the basket of the air balloon represented by a white sheet covering a fan that always keeps the sheet fluttering, reminding us that this play is all about being up in the air.