carried away on the crest of a wave

You may have seen the poster for carried away on the crest of a wave, David Yee’s new play that just opened at Tarragon Theatre, directed by Nina Lee Aquino..  The title hints at its subject, namely the tsunami that devastated shorelines on the far side of the world, on Boxing Day 2004, killing a quarter of a million people.

The image on the poster reminds me of that whimsical moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up inside the tornado.  She sees Auntie Em, some animals, and everything seems perfectly normal, even though –oh my—we’re in the middle of a cataclysm, a natural disaster.  We see people in powerful balletic poses, and also a woman (I think it’s the director herself) carrying a child on her back.

(Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

I am always intrigued by approaches to story-telling.  Recently I watched the 1952 Michael Rennie version of Les Miserables on TCM, shortly after having received the DVD of the film musical as a present.  Each is wonderful in its own way.  There are some moments that work better in words, some in song, some with bodies still or moving without any words.  They say that in the best musicals, songs and music pick up where words leave off.

I was a bit fearful coming to this play, because it’s a play concerning big themes & big ideas.  I was cautioned about this, in a meeting I had once very long ago, with Elliot Hayes.  No I am not saying i am anybody to be reckoned with, perhaps because after I had that meeting I took the wrong fork in the road.  In the 1980s at least, people didn’t write plays with big ideas unless they were masters.  Durrenmatt or Shafer, yes.  But me?  No, first you learn how to write, or at least I think that’s what they were mercifully trying to get me to do.

Sorry if I seem to digress.   I am in awe of anyone undertaking major subjects or adapting big stories, especially when they get it right: as Yee surely does.  He gets the really important stuff, about the subject matter and how to put it onstage.  This play isn’t supposed to address the nuts and bolts, even if he makes a bit joke of it in the first few minutes, teasing us with a bit if pseudo-scientific talk.  Big themes and big ideas demand poetry, theatricality and symbol.  In the space he opens for us, where we contemplate big actions in places of stillness, observing people thinking and feeling, moving bodies with music, sounds of water and breath, we are thereby able to make connections.

I don’t know how much of the magic is Yee and how much is the creative mise-en-scène of Aquino and her team.  But I recently saw another play (with some of the same people) at fu-GEN (review), that showed Aquino’s sensitivity.  There’s a great deal of musicality in this production.  Sometimes there’s actual music playing, sometimes it’s speaking voices, sometimes the sounds of water dripping or being splashed, and walked through.  The cumulative visceral effect is very meditative, taking us far away from mundane life.

Yee’s play is like a series of vignettes, variations on a theme, played out in different configurations of people encountering one another.  Sometimes it’s comical, sometimes it’s more serious, sometimes it’s very emotional.  The range in this work is remarkable, calling for a few bravura moments from the cast.  Everyone has their moment playing multiple characters, although I think I was most impressed by the opportunities seized by Richard Zeppieri (first as a mouthy radio host, then as a john in a faraway brothel) and Mayko Nguyen (in that same brothel, and later bearing witness from North America).

Richard Zeppieri, Mayko Nguyen (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Richard Zeppieri, Mayko Nguyen (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

In each case I thought I knew where we were going, and in each case the performer –and Yee—took us somewhere else entirely.   There are surprises in the text, as if the situations peel layers off the surface of characters, gradually exposing truths from underneath.   It’s wonderful to see these confrontations, which ultimately are a challenge to us as well.

carried away on the crest of a wave continues at Tarragon Theatre until May 26th

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