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John Ng and Clarissa Lauzon. Photo by David Hou.

Theatre Review: carried away on the crest of a wave at the NAC

By Brian Carroll on March 26, 2018

2 hours, 26 minutes, including one intermission / Drama | Mature

On December 26, 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami wrecked havoc in the Indian Ocean, killing approximately 250,000 people across 14 countries. The movements of tectonic plates and volumes of ocean water were so huge that they affected the rotation of the planet.

Playwright David Yee explores the human impact of this event in a series of nine vignettes. How did people react to this death and destruction? Yee’s characters are distinctly human and imperfect, a mix of sinners and a few saints. Each one has a rationale or rationalization to justify their actions.

The National Arts Centre is warning patrons that the performance of carried away on the crest of a wave contains mature content and brief nudity. The mature content is very raw and disturbing. This is not a production for the faint of heart.

John Ng and Clarissa Lauzon. Photo by David Hou.

Best of the vignettes is the Orphan Boy story. John Ng (Kim’s Convenience, The Best Brothers) as the Hardboiled Man and Clarissa Lauzon as the Child deliver superb performances. Ng plays a bitter crusty survivor of parental loss and school bullying who has rescued the Child from the tsunami that has killed her parents. He doesn’t know how to comfort this complete stranger while they wait in the airport for her uncle to arrive. Instead, he tries to prepare her for the hard experiences he had as an orphan at her age. I won’t spoil the Man’s epiphany for you. Let’s just say that this tale of redemption was the crowd favourite of opening night.

Jonathan Tan and John Ng. Photo by David Hou.

The Falling Story is an allegory for clinical depression that finds Makoto (Jonathan Tan) trying to rescue his dead lover’s father, Kintaro (John Ng) from a four-and-a-half year depression. The two have never met, but Makoto has sought him out, to try to give meaning to their mutual loss. A sensitive treatment of grief and loss that is both magical and grounded in humanity.

Zaib Shaikh and Kayvon Khoshkam. Photo by David Hou.

What would Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce have said about the tsunami, and particularly the Western world’s response to it? It certainly wouldn’t have been politically correct. In the Radio Story, Rick (Kayvon Khoshkam) is a shock jock at a fictional Toronto radio station. Sanjay (Zaib Shaikh) is his handler. David Yee uses Rick to criticize the West’s aid efforts on the grounds that they are self-serving and inadequate to the size of the disaster. He also identifies why the victims matter less to the West.

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Rick invokes his patron saints of comedy: Bruce and Pryor. He invokes the common good as a reason for his actions. But Yee knows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This scene creates shock waves that reverberate later on in the play. It is this scene that I found the most disturbing, both for raw language and raw politics.

Chirag Naik and Zaib Shaikh. Photo by David Hou.

While there are some other laudable scenes in this play, there are three scenes where Yee plays fast and loose with the facts. The first of these is the Saint Story. It is based on St. Thomas Cathedral in Chennai (formerly Madras) in the Tamil Nadu state in India. The local Christian parishioners believe that St. Thomas incurred divine intervention to save the cathedral and 2000 parishioners from the tsunami while the surroundings were destroyed. The fact that they were spared is true. Yee creates a confrontation between the local priest (Zaib Shaikh) and an architect (Chirag Naik) who has been hired to investigate the miracle. The architect is Muslim.

In fact, there was another similar miraculous claim in Chennai: the Hindu temple of Tiruchendur Murugan also survived the tsunami that destroyed its surroundings. That claim was investigated by scientists for the Indian Physical Oceanographic Division and a local scientist of the National Institute of Oceanography. Given that Tamil Nadu is 88% Hindu, it is highly likely that the investigators were Hindu.

Only 6% of Tamil Nadu is Muslim. For the architect to be a Muslim is unlikely. To the conflict between science and faith, Yee has added a Muslim/Christian conflict that is speculation, muddies the issues, and makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.

The last two scenes of the play also have holes in their plot lines that similarly detract from the verisimilitude of the scenes. Given that these scenes are late in the play, I won’t reveal any spoilers. But I found it difficult to believe in these scenes, and this broke the impact of a production that otherwise held promise.

carried away on the crest of a wave by NAC English Theatre is playing at the National Arts Centre Theatre from March 27 to 31 at 7:30pm and March 31 to April 1 at 2pm. Tickets are $25 to $76 (including HST).