Battle Uphill, Downhill, and Hopping Across: “Touching the Void”

The cast of “Touching the Void.” Photo by Danielle Fauteux Jacques.

Presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company
Based on Joe Simpson’s bestselling memoir Touching the Void
Written by David Greig
Directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques
Scenic & Sound Design: Joseph Lark-Riley
Costume Design: Elizabeth Rocha 
Lighting Design: Danielle Fauteux Jacques
Featuring: Patrick O’Konis, Kody Grassett, Parker Jennings, Zach Fuller

April 19- May 26, 2024 (Extended!)
Chelsea Theatre Works
189 Winnisimmet St.
Chelsea, MA

Running Time: estimated 2 hours with one intermission

Performances followed by a Reception with the actors

Critique by Kitty Drexel

CHELSEA, Mass. — Apollinaire Theatre Company’s Touching the Void is about two men chasing death up a mountain. Death chases them back down.  It runs through May 26 at Chelsea Theatre Works.

It is 1985. Two Brits, Joe Simpson (Patrick O’Konis) and Simon Yates (Kody Grassett) are mountaineers who decide to climb a dangerous mountain together: the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. These dumbass himbos don’t have a backup plan, just a hippy acquaintance with no useful skills, Richard (Zach Fuller), watching their gear at base camp. Touching the Void is told in imaginary flashforwards and backs that feature Joe’s sister Sarah (Parker Jennings). Sarah wants to understand why Joe, Simon, and even Richard would do such a foolhardy thing as climbing a treacherous peak. Me too, Sarah. 

I was not mentally prepared for how riveting Apollinaire’s Touching the Void is. It starts strong: Sarah is in a bar drinking her melancholy. It ends stronger with a nearly unrequited rescue in the Andes. The audience, if it has done its Googling, knows how the real-life adventure ends. Knowing doesn’t make the play any less engrossing.

Playwright David Greig wrote a compelling script and the staging by Danielle Fauteux Jacques unleashes its full potential on her unsuspecting audience. Chelsea Theatre Works is transformed from a mild-mannered black box into a craggy peak with grey fabric, upturned chairs, and wooden tables. The cast introduces the world of Touching the Void and recreates Joe and Simon’s epic adventure of idiocy with the tools they have available: books, more chairs, a bench, their imaginations, and sheer force of will. 

The audience is compelled by the actors’ strong belief in their storytelling to doubt whether it will end well for the heroes. Their ensemble work is excellent; their individual character work supports the larger whole. The tension is so palpable between Sarah’s fear for her brother, Joe and Simon’s misery, and Richard’s hippy-dippy obliviousness that we follow every gripping moment. Maybe tonight will be the night the story changes. We must watch closely to know how it ends.  

The sound design by Joseph Lark-Riley was chilling (pun half-heartedly intended). He established place and passage of time with whooshes of wind and crunches of ice. The actors’ emotional fervor of climbing an ice wall was met with the sound of a pick hitting solid ice. His precise timing flung the audience into the thick of the characters’ battle against the elements. These are normal winter sounds for New England. In the context of this play, they are trauma-inducing.

Touching the Void is a cleverly devised stunner of a production. I don’t prefer adventure thrillers. Heights do not entice me. I prefer to keep my feet safe and, on the ground – real or imaginary. But. Touching the Void does make a good argument for producing more action/adventure theatre: It’s a damn good show with a great cast. I’m not any closer to understanding why anyone would chase death up a mountain cliff, but I do understand unhealthy obsessions and making terrible choices in one’s 20s. Himbo mountaineers are people, too.

“The Climb”
“There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side.
It’s the climb.”
Songwriters: Jessi Leigh Alexander / Jon Clifton Mabe
The Climb lyrics © Music Of Stage Three, Vistaville Music

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