NAC Theatre: After the deluge comes the relevance of the play carried away on the crest of a wave

carried away on the crest of a wave opens at the NAC next week. Photo: Matt Barnes

It happened more than 13 years ago, but the Asian tsunami that killed at least 230,000 people on Boxing Day, 2004 has a profound relevance for us here and now, according to Kim Collier.

Collier is directing the new production of David Yee’s carried away on the crest of a wave that begins at the National Arts Centre March 21.

Structured as nine vignettes, the play is rooted in the tsunami and explores how we respond to disaster. The responses range from a Toronto radio shock jock’s interpretation a couple of days after it occurs, to a pair of Malaysian brothers trying to save their home from the deadly waters, to someone in Thailand attempting to process what happened a year later.

The vignettes, says Collier, capture “how lives are touched around the earth, how loss touches so many souls.”

That’s where the relevance comes in.

Collier believes that the play, by sparking empathy, shows how we are all connected through loss and hope and despite vast temporal and spatial distances. That’s crucial in 2018, she feels.

“The answers to life are not in being alone when we are suffering but in how we transform the events of our lives to help each other and how hope helps us create a sense of meaning.

“Now more than ever, when we’re in these global times with the urgency around our environment, the urgency around our political differences, when division is arising all over the world, a piece like this that reminds us we’re interconnected … is vitally important.”

Yee’s particular use of vignettes to achieve his goals feels radical because it doesn’t follow any rules, according to the director. “It doesn’t need to follow those rules because it’s working on another level. It’s saying, as we wrestle with these things that are huge and a challenge for us as we live, as we deal with loss, (that) it has its own expression.”

The lack of a traditional, unifying structure can be challenging for audiences and director alike.

Careful to avoid spoilers, Collier says that Yee’s text, which won him the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama in 2015, resolves that challenge by showing how lives across space and time are touched by the disaster.

That unifying element is amplified by lighting and other design choices, she adds.

She says that the varied vignettes create the play’s central vision of human connectedness in a cumulative fashion that emerges as different storylines and acting styles take over the stage. “It sneaks up on you and packs a real wallop.”

When the play premiered under another director at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 2013, designer Camellia Koo created a stage that slowly filled with ankle-deep water.

Collier is working with Koo at the NAC, but the design is new.

“We started totally fresh, (and) I didn’t feel we needed to have real water because the water is something that happened a long time ago so it’s a memory, a haunting,” says Collier. Again wanting to avoid spoilers, she simply says a “metaphor” is used to represent water.

Cast members in the NAC show include John Ng, who performed in the Tarragon production and who you may know from CBC TV’s Kim’s Convenience. Also on board is Ottawa’s Adrienne Wong, who directed You Are Happy at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in 2017.

Collier is confident the show will be received as one that is “powerful and cathartic and connects you to our connectivity.”

Experiencing that connectivity will lead to “a stronger culture and world.  That’s why we need stories … to remind us that it’s not just ourselves.”

carried away on the crest of a wave is in the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre March 21-April 1 (previews March 21 and 22; opening night, March 23). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.