Sometimes as a critic, you get lucky and the title of the show is the review. But I owe it to the intense performance of co-creator Peter Smith to elaborate. Tribe of Fools is known for physical and meaningful original productions, tackling all manner of topics in unexpected ways. In You Shouldn’t Be Doing What You’re Doing on that LADDER, that topic is advertised as “depression,” but I caught whiffs of “fear” and “failure” as well.
LADDER is performed in a warehouse, off of Spring Garden near 2nd Street. The 20-foot ceilings are necessary since much of the action revolves around three ladders, the tallest of which is 12 feet high. If you’re the type of person who obeys warnings on ladders about which steps not to climb past, and what else ladder manufacturers won’t be liable for should you ignore their labels, then you will find some of Smith’s actions disquieting. Smith nearly exhausts the list of activities you can do with three ladders (but definitely shouldn’t attempt), and invents some that you never thought of, in varying degrees of service to the theme.
In addition, he and co-creator Charlotte Northeast run the gamut of depression-related subjects, which is something else that Tribe of Fools specializes in, whether it’s sex ed class or Philadelphia sports fandom or violence in media, they pack a lot into each short show. LADDER is only about an hour, but in that hour we witness Smith struggling with overcoming anxiety, day-to-day activities (like waking up or going to sleep) and the near-crippling endeavor of trying something new.
These themes heighten the piece from something akin to clowning to a performance rich in metaphor as the ladder itself conveys balance, height and innovation. One of my favorite scenes involves Smith struggling to reach the top of the highest ladder, and in the process comes up with a myriad of alternative methods, which are more complicated and difficult than the original plan (climb the steps), while not attaining his personal goal.
Sound designer Kyle Yackowski had a head start with the boxy space. Dropping a ladder wouldn’t be as jarring in a room designed to baffle thwaps. Even then, the use of music, and the use of stopping the music at the right time, added dynamics to the otherwise static scenery. And Robin Stamey’s lighting helped to drive the story and separate scenes and themes.
In LADDER, the audience is also a character. The collective tension from the seats as Smith attempts all the things that one should-not-do-at-home is palpable. There’s something comforting about knowing that the person next to you is experiencing the same rise in blood pressure that you are. (Note: seats in the front and center are what Smith cheekily referred to as the “scare zone.”) But in the end, through the episodes and visuals that Smith and Northeast have created, we learn that it’s our own fragile and vulnerable selves that are our true adversaries.
You Shouldn’t Be Doing What You’re Doing on that LADDER runs through February 22. For tickets and info, visit http://www.tribeoffools.org/