“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back”- Frodo Baggins, Return of the King (2003)
When the hobbits return to Hobbiton after their epic quest through Middle Earth, Frodo Baggins finds himself unable to readjust to normalcy after experiencing such perilous adventure as bearer of the One Ring. J.R.R. Tolkien, when originally writing his fantasy series in 1954, was responding to a Britain that had just barely survived the Second World War and the soldiers who had witnessed countless horrors due to the technological weaponry advances achieved during the late 1930s arms race. Similarly, Canadian playwright David Yee uses the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami as his departure point for his 2013 work titled carried away on the crest of a wave where he explores how individuals all over the world try to cope with the after-effects of one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. And much like Tolkien, Yee appears to suggest that in a world driven by technology the only thing that will save us is our humanity and empathy for others.
Directed by Kim Collier, the piece is a composition of vignettes that traverse through different time periods and locales (thanks in part to the clever LED signs on the stage) following the tsunami where we play witness to various scenarios involving individuals who have all been affected by this catastrophe to varying degrees. On the surface, it appears that these rather self-contained scenes are merely connected by the event of the Tsunami itself. However, when diving a bit deeper you begin to see the thematic trends emerge: coping with death and grief; the affirmation of faith and the desire to capitalize on tragedy; and the struggle to rebuild a life after losing everything.
Aesthetically speaking, this show sets a high bar. Using little more than industrial-size sheets of plastic, the ensemble on stage not only recreates the feelings of open water and the stormy seas but more importantly, perhaps, helps to illustrate the sheer magnitude of the giant waves that devastated the coastlines bordering the Indian Ocean. Moreover, any other set pieces used to dress the scene (a relatively small see-through house, rows of airport chairs, and a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, for example) are rolled or, in some cases, flown on and off the stage with such ease that you can hardly pick out the scene changes as being, well, scene changes. Director Collier does a commendable job keeping the production running so seamlessly. Not to mention, sound designer Brian Linds, and lighting designer Gerald King who fill and colour the space with both audio and visual elements used to heighten tension and mood; and also to symbolize more complex thoughts and concepts. A notable example is the vignette with the two brothers: a yellow-toned light is used to signify sickness and/or death and seems to suggest that the brother who decides to swim out and find help doesn’t make it or, perhaps, was never there to begin with.
The piece isn’t so much about a protagonist (or group of protagonists) who sticks to a traditional dramaturgical trajectory, but rather about the connections being made by all of the characters in their respective scenes. We watch as the seismologist gives in to her sudden attraction for a ‘man’ in the audience; two brothers say goodbye to one another; a Muslim and a Catholic find common ground; a young executive gets into a war of words with a strong-willed and outspoken radio host; a man comforts a newly orphaned child as they wait for her uncle in an airport; a young man attempts to pull his girlfriend’s father out of a (literal) hole of depression; an FBI agent faces a moral conflict when confronted with a mother’s heart-rending, yet criminal, decision; a newly widowed man who tries to find comfort in the arms of a sex worker in Phuket; and finally a man who’s lost it all consoles the man who believes himself responsible for the entire disaster. I imagine this is due in part to highlighting how the worst disasters can often times bring us the closest together allowing us to open ourselves up to those we might not have ever really considered engaging with before.
Not only that, but the vignettes themselves are linked thematically. There are scenes that explore how individuals deal with the loss of a loved one and grieving (‘2006 Malaysia’, ‘2005 Phuket’, ‘2009 Salt Lake City’ and ‘2005 Sri Lanka’); scenes where characters are faced with moral and/or internal dilemmas (‘2004 Toronto’,and ‘2009 Salt Lake City’); and scenes where characters must collaborate with those who may be diametrically opposed to (‘2005 Tamil Nadu’, ‘2004 Toronto’, ‘2010 Vancouver’, and ‘2007 Ko Phi Phi’). Further parallels can be made between scenes like ‘2005 Sri Lanka’ where a man escorts a young child into the care of her uncle after surviving her parents during the tsunami, and ‘2010 Vancouver’ where newly widowed Lenore (played by Adrienne Wong), after losing both her child and her husband to the devastating effects of the super-storm, brings another orphaned child back to Canada by using her son’s papers to pass him off as her own.
The characters’ enhanced feelings of personal responsibility to these children are characteristic of the heroic acts that often come to light during almost any tragedy- Syrian refugees who managed to raise and donate extra resources to the victims of the Fort McMurray fires; marathoners who literally ran to the hospital to donate blood immediately following the Boston bombing; and those teachers who have laid down their lives to protect their students during active school shootings are a few more recent examples. In any case, thematically, these two scenes appear to suggest that the rigid structures of what we call ‘civilized society’ are often stripped away when faced with life or death situations which, perhaps ironically, puts us more in touch with our true humanity.
Additionally, the theme of grieving for the loss of an individual by way of trying to replace (or, rather, replicate) that individual is echoed first in ‘2005 Phuket’, where Crumb (played by Ryan Hollyman) tells us that he once tried to simulate his former wife’s image by way of dressing a sex-worker in his wife’s old clothes and jewellery before copulating. Lenore also convinces herself that by taking in this orphaned child she is not only replacing her lost son, but also replacing the family structure lost by the newly orphaned child. The permanence of death is often times too difficult for humans to truly comprehend and so grief (in all of it’s confusing and conflicting waves) can lead us down paths we may have never before considered which, in turn, could result in adopting coping strategies we may not realize (or want to recognize) are harmful.
All that to say, despite the variety of characters and scenarios there are a few standout performances on stage worthy of mention. John Ng as the Hardboiled Man, Kintaro, and Vermin absolutely knocks it out of the park as he gives the audience a great amount of depth to delve into: his performance alongside the little orphaned child(played by Clarissa Lauzon who displays an impressive maturity and presence on stage for someone so young) in scene ‘2005 Sri Lanka’ ensured there wasn’t a dry eye leaving the theatre for intermission. Not to mention that his powerful yet well-balanced delivery of the final monologue hammered home the playwright’s sentiment about serendipitous indifference: we are all interconnected seemingly by fate and, yet, most of us choose to live our lives blissfully ignorant to this fact.
Ryan Hollyman and Andrea Yu who play the patron and escort duo, Crumb and Jasmine, in ‘2005 Phuket’ play off each other wonderfully. I can only imagine how challenging it must be for performers to come back after intermission (especially following the scene with Ng and Lauzon) and hit the audience with a heavily illustrative sex scene playing two characters we have yet to be introduced to. Even more challenging, undoubtedly, is keeping the chemistry and tension between the two for the rest of the scene. And yet, Hollyman and Yu pull it off with aplomb. Hollyman strikes a nice balance between showing Crumb’s vulnerability and lashing out in frustration at the cards life has suddenly dealt this character. Yu, as the experienced courtesan Jasmine, does a great job of keeping up an almost icy indifference towards Crumb as a way of keeping her cards close to her chest, as it were, but simultaneously she gives us moments where we can see the walls beginning to crumble. The result is a scene where we can feel that the characters have had a genuine interaction and connection and so at the culmination of the scene, where Jasmine assists Crumb in committing suicide in the bathtub, we feel a sense of catharsis rather than one of shock or horror.
This generation has seen no shortage of horrific worldly events. From mass shootings, to bombings, to floodings, forest fires, war, famine in this year alone it seems almost as if every day a new tragedy is being reported on the news. In spite of a technology driven world that makes the world feel smaller than ever, it sometimes feels as though humanity has never been at further odds. Social media represents the classic double edged sword whereby its usefulness rests in the ability to disseminate information at a lightning fast pace which has in the past seen some positive results when it comes to emergency and crisis management; yet, at the same time, these technologies have given rise to the advent of ‘slacktivism’ (slack+activism) where sending out digital ‘thoughts and prayers’ has become a blanket sentiment in response to many disaster relief efforts. Collier’s interpretation of Yee’s text highlights this disconnect by way of orchestrating these moments of genuine human connection on stage between the performers which further emphasizes the idea that human empathy is the ultimate equalizer. Events that seek to tear us apart are also the ones that brings humanity the closest together. So, how does one pick up the threads of an old life after experiencing such horror? To quote Yee: “[W]e have to save ourselves. We’re men…we’re only men”.
carried away on the crest of a wave
Written by David Yee
Directed by Kim Collier
Presented at the National Arts Centre March 21st to April 1st, 2018.
Cast: Ryan Hollyman, Kayvon Khoshkam, Clarissa Lauzon, Chirag Naik, John Ng, Zaid Shaikh, Jonathan Tan, Adrienne Wong, Jenny Young, Andrea Yu
Camellia Koo…..Set and Costume Designer
Gerald King…..Lighting Designer
Brian Linds…..Sound Designer
Pamela Feghali…..Assistant Director
Laurie Champagne…..Stage Manager
Loreen Gibson……Assistant Stage Manager
Jennifer Fornelli…..Youth Chaperone