Raleigh Little Theatre

Saturday, Nov. 7–Sunday, Nov. 15, various times,  $12–$17

Vaudeville star and early film comedian W.C. Fields famously gave fellow actors a grouchy admonition: Never work with animals or children.  

But what if your scene partner is a balloon? 

That’s the challenge facing actor Kevin Roberge and director Jesse Gephart with Balloonacy, a play that opens this weekend at the Raleigh Rose Garden’s outdoor Stephenson Amphitheatre. The novel production is Raleigh Little Theatre’s first show before a live audience in eight months.

In playwright Barry Kornhauser’s wordless script, an old man finds his solitude interrupted when a red balloon floats into his life through a window. In a bit of magical realism, the floating sphere prods, provokes—and ultimately, befriends—the curmudgeon. “It’s an instigator,” says Roberge. “It’s making decisions that are affecting me, tormenting me, amusing me.” 

As a friendship develops between the two, the balloon becomes the second character in what would otherwise be a one-person show.

Though the work was originally written for young audiences, Gephart notes that this story of solitude has taken on a deeper resonance during a pandemic. 

In a nod to current conditions, the character takes a mask off when he first enters the house; though he lives alone, we can see that wasn’t always the case. “There’s a sense of loss and lack of connectivity to other people,” Gephart says. “A lot of us can relate to the idea of being alone just now, and what it means to have the ability to connect again.”

Still, how do you give agency, and personality, to a brightly colored bubble? 

“I will tell you, it’s a journey,” Roberge says. “Every performance I learn a little bit more about Red”—the name he’s given his silent onstage partner—“gradually determining what it can do and what it can’t.” 

In 2017, Roberge and Gephart worked together on another show for RLT featuring unlikely puppets: the millennial musical Avenue Q. “A puppet’s just a material object—just fleece, foam, or whatever it’s made of,” Roberge says. “A balloon’s an object too. All I really have to do is transfer that same energy to the balloon.”

“If I give this string a tug at just the right moment, it looks like it’s giving me a little tap on the noggin,” Roberge says. “Then you just find more and more of those moments.”

“One of the things I learned from Kevin on Avenue Q was if the performer believes the thing is real, the audience will believe it too,” Gephart says.

There’s no shortage of technical concerns when one of a show’s two characters can be blown off-course by a strong breeze. Designer Jenny Mitchell says the design team had to work through a number of balloon considerations—how big it should be, for example, and what kind of counterweights could anchor it onstage.

The concentration and purity of helium within the balloon is crucial as well; consumer-grade gas available at places like Party City, for example, doesn’t give Red enough buoyancy. “The mix changes how it handles, and what you can get from it,” Roberge says. 

It takes technical ingenuity that the audience never sees to give an inanimate object an economy of expression. But in Balloonacy, Red is a playful, mischievous character who ultimately empathizes with the loneliness of its host. 

“It’s like the deus ex machina in the final chapter of this man’s life…the thing that restores the life he’s lost to him,” Gephart says.  

“I don’t think it’s a one-sided friendship,” Roberge concludes. “At the end, we’re both better after the journey.” 

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