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Performance Network's K2 starts out ferociously; the rest of the production must aspire to do justice to its cinematic opening moments. The audience's senses are liberally assaulted with the sounds of high winds and endless terrifying darkness, juxtaposed with images of the actors coming into view on Daniel C. Walker's imposing cliffside ledge, all of which had my mouth hanging open in anticipation. Lighting and sound design by Andrew Hungerford is well used as a commanding presence and as an unobtrusive backdrop, especially in these quick illuminations.

In a production rich with such arresting visuals, two challenges arise. One is to effectively maintain the illusion of peril from being stranded at near-cruising altitude on the world's second-highest mountain, instead of mere feet above a stage floor. The other is to make the characters' words and relationship compelling enough to draw focus from the horror of their situation. Here, longtime collaborators James Bowen, John Michael Manfredi, and director Tim Edward Rhoze meet the former with aplomb, and come within a hair of sustaining the latter, in a riveting production as unforgiving as the mountain that lends it its name.

Hobbyist climbers Harold (Bowen) and Taylor (Manfredi) are descending from the summit of K2 when a mishap causes them to fall; both miraculously land on a small ledge, where they somehow survive overnight. At first light, they take stock: insufficient gear, almost no food, limited sunlight before the snow returns, and Harold's broken leg. Their situation is so dire, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook wouldn't even bother with an entry. However, the possibility of their death — while never out of mind — is pushed aside as these intelligent, resourceful, and determined men plan to finish their descent quickly, and together. Playwright Patrick Meyers delicately but determinedly leads the men to their harrowing conclusion, with gentle hints throughout that make the reality of it no less engaging.

The play runs one hundred uninterrupted minutes, mostly involving immediate discussion of tactical decisions and inventory. The actors constantly rearrange their clothing and equipment (detailed work by Sally L. Converse-Doucette and Charles Sutherland, respectively), making full use of their limited space; Manfredi even gamely climbs the face of Walker's set. Their faces the only exposed part of their bodies, the actors still successfully draw the audience into their struggle. Additional touches like mounting fatigue and altitude sickness develop by increments. Bowen and Manfredi's efforts are mesmerizing, and left me little time to devilishly wonder what would happen if something fell off the ledge (it doesn't) or to glance at audience members seated in the rows specially placed at either side of the stage.

The script never fully explains how these men are friends, but the depth of their affection is clear throughout, even in the most desperate moments — a credit to Rhoze and his actors. The only shortcoming was Meyers's thematic odes, occasional moments when the climbers just talk to fill the emptiness: it's difficult to simultaneously maintain a sense of danger and make these conversations seem like more than just chatter, and some are less successful than others. In a different production, these ruminations may form the basis of Harold's and Taylor's characters, but here they left me impatient for the more interesting stuff.

K2 should not be mistaken for a placid evening of theater. To get sucked in to these characters and spend the next hour and a half waiting to see whether they live or die is agony. Like a good thriller, this production may not be for the overly anxious or the scaredy-cats, but devotees of the motto "That which does not kill us makes us stronger" should find reward in the experience.


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