Other Inland Empires: surfing in shallow water

Julie Hammond's Other Inland Empires is at the rEvolver Festival

It’s hard to care about an earring and a tooth — even if they’re embodied by women wearing goggles — if you haven’t had a chance to get to know them. (Photo by Tim Matheson)

Formally innovative, Other Inland Empires also looks like it’s also going to be theatrically and thematically rewarding — at first.

Writer and director Julie Hammond presents three characters: she has written herself into the piece as a narrator; her grandmother, who survived the Holocaust, is present as a recorded voice; and Gidget from the surfing movies shows up both in readings from one of the Gidget books and as an actor who does some onstage surfing.

The narrative premise is a stretch. Hammond, who grew up in southern California, found out that the fictional character Gidget was based on a real girl named Kathy Kohner, who was the daughter of European Jewish émigrés. Kohner became a fixture on Malibu beaches in the middle of the last century. To reverse the trajectory in which the Jewish diaspora of WWII contributed to California surfing culture, Hammond decided to travel to her family’s geographic origins in Slovakia in search of Slovakian surfers. Other Inland Empires is, to some extent, a record of that trip.

Okay. Slovakia is landlocked so Hammond’s character obviously isn’t looking for literal Slovakian surf. The show is an exploration of identity, of the space between American and European cultures. More significantly, in Other Inland Empires,Hammond is trying to approach her grandmother’s WWII experience without, as she puts it, becoming “a tourist in someone else’s trauma.” So she approaches the abuse — the torture — that her grandmother suffered obliquely, ironically, and intellectually.

Off the top, Other Inland Empires is seductive. One of the members of the artistic team pours sand from a beach cooler onto the top of another beach cooler. This action is a sensual evocation of the shore, and the pouring takes a while, so it’s also an invitation to allow one’s self to become meditative.

The brightly coloured elements in Robert Leveroos’s set feel innocent and elemental: the green screen, the bright orange beach chair, the blue fabric poured on the floor.

There’s playfulness, too. You can almost smell the soft plastic of the inflatable palm trees. Actors set up a fan and spray water into it to create mist. The green screen moves as if of its own accord and, in a charmingly low-tech kind of magic, you never know what props are going to emerge from behind it.

The surfing connection is tenuous though. In addition to the appealing textures I’ve described, the surfing idea justifies the spacey live guitar playing of Matthew Ariaratnam: it sounds like an abstracted variation on early electric guitar instrumentals. But Hammond’s attempt to relate Slovakian political events to surfing milestones is forced — and that’s about as close as the Gidget connection ever gets to paying off narratively or thematically.

In the story’s most sustained passage, Hammond loses a tooth in an unspecified accident. In the staging, we see an actor representing her tooth and an actor representing an earring she lost in the same event. The tooth is dressed in white, the earring in silver. They’re both wearing swimming goggles, and they’re holding hands and swaying. We’re told that they’re underwater in a lake. But Hammond has given us absolutely no reason to care about the tooth — or the earring for that matter. After the fact, she draws a line from the tooth back to her grandmother but, as the imagery and narrative are unfolding, they are devoid of thematic or emotional content, so they’re empty and they’re boring.

I don’t doubt Hammond’s affection for her grandmother and Other Inland Empires does eventually let her grandmother say something more substantial. But, watching Other Inland Empires, I became frustrated with Hammond’s apparent fascination with her means of expression. I’m always grateful for formal challenge, but I’m much happier when it comes with depth.

OTHER INLAND EMPIRES Written, directed, and produced by Julie Hammond. In The Cultch’s Historic Theatre as part of the rEvolver Festival on Wednesday, May 22. Continues until May 26.Tickets.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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