Review: This theatrical wave fails to crest

Chirag Naik, Adrienne Wong, Zaib Shaikh, Jonathan Tan. Photo: David Hou

Professional hermits and Donald Trump aside, few would dispute that our connection to each other is part of what makes us human.

So why doesn’t David Yee’s carried away on the crest of a wave, a play which is all about human connections over space and time, actually engage?

Now at the National Arts Centre, the Governor General Award winner takes as its jumping off point the 2004 earthquake and ensuing tsunami in the Indian Ocean which killed some 250,000 people.

The show comprises nine vignettes that represent varying times and places after the tsunami. It sounds like a smart idea: dip into the lives of people affected in multiple ways by the catastrophe, lives that are sometimes related to the precipitating event in only the most tangential manner, as a strategy for unravelling the tangled skein that binds us all together.

We witness, for instance, a couple of Malaysian brothers trapped in their floating home after the tsunami. They reminisce about the possessions they are jettisoning into the ocean, recall a drive involving their mother and dog, and agonize over separation. Alas, they give us little sense of the existential dislocation that must engulf anyone in such a situation.

There’s also an absurdist bit about a guy who’s been falling down a hole beneath Vancouver for four and a half years, sustaining himself mainly on orange juice and chicken salad sandwiches.

In yet another scene, a man cares for a little girl who’s been orphaned by the waters. John Ng depicts the man, Clarissa Lauzon is the little girl, and the vignette plays out in minimalist fashion in a nondescript airport. It’s a powerful piece that subverts a potentially clichéd situation, both the raw hurt and the connectedness the two characters would otherwise never have experienced driving home Yee’s theme.

Problem is that even when they work individually, the vignettes that make up the show don’t produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

With the play’s through line being a metaphoric one – our interrelationships, often serendipitous – we need something bigger than brief glimpses into disparate lives if we are to make more than just an intellectual connection about connectedness.

Agreed, the piece about a Toronto shock jock (Kayvon Khoshkam) is funny and highly watchable. Cynical but with his instincts finely attuned to human reality, the radio man pillories here-today-forgotten-tomorrow upswellings of celebrity-led concern about global issues (remember the mid-1980s, Canadian fundraising song Tears Are Not Enough?). “The tsunami came because God hates you all,” he sings into the mic in mock-reverential tones. You laugh, but wonder if you should.

On the other hand, a scene, in which a troubled man and an impossible-to-read prostitute have sex and then a conversation, is stillborn.

Cast as vignettes, many of these stories simply aren’t full enough or closely enough related to engage us emotionally. And without that emotional spark, Yee’s linking of monumental and quotidian, of India and Australia and Sri Lanka, of 2004 and 2007 and 2010, doesn’t hang together. 

What does hang in this new production directed by Kim Collier, is a huge piece of plastic. Representing water, it occasionally descends from above to be manipulated by some of the 10-member cast to simulate the tsunami.

Part of Camellia Koo’s set design, it mostly looks and sounds like, well, a huge piece of plastic. If you can connect with that, more power to you. 

It is, of course, critical that we remember that we are all in this together. John Donne pretty much nailed it when he said no man is an island. But maybe we didn’t need this particular wash of water to remind us of that.

carried away on the crest of a wave is a NAC English Theatre production. It was reviewed Friday. In the Babs Asper Theatre until April 1. Tickets:

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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.