nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 16, 2010
In writing about a piece that contains personal narratives from survivors of recent natural disasters around the world—Hurricane Katrina; Typhoon Ondoy, which struck the Philippines in late 2009; and 2010's Haiti earthquake—I find myself surprised to note that the most moving, resonant, and theatrically effective sections in (UN)Natural Disaster were often the transitional sequences that linked the survivor stories. They're expositional, of course—especially the section where the performers list and describe the different types of major natural disasters (earthquake, tornado, cyclone, avalanche, heat wave, flood, etc.), outlining consequences and survival strategies, and embodying each with a set of simple rhythmic motions that do somehow manage to evoke the massive, horrifying event represented. But creator/director Richard Hess has found an elegant, stripped-down staging vocabulary—with the only scenic element a long piece of cloth that becomes the surface of water, the roof of a caved-in building, a shroud, a screen—that works with the volume of information to convey emotion in exposition. Certain key phrases and moments—instructions from searchers, the repeated line "all the people are gone"—serve as refrains, echoing through the piece. The simplicity, directness, and understatedness of the acting style also helps give the piece the feeling of an elegy, which the songs (a hymn or spiritual in English, a Filipino lullaby, a Haitian folk song, and several wordless pieces, sung beautifully a cappella by different members of the ensemble) underscore.
Conversely, most of the personal stories—from New Orleans, a brother and sister trapped in an attic with their dying grandmother and a young man who fled the Convention Center to be stranded on a highway overpass for days; from Ondoy, two sisters who faced the devastating floodwaters; from Port-au-Prince, a woman who was trapped in the cave her house had become with her young son—feel oddly generic. It feels somehow as if by being made representative—being made to stand for all the stories that could be told—the edges and the details of these stories have been smoothed down until, even with all the human tragedy they delineate, they've lost some of their urgency. I don't know if the stories come from actual survivor testimony or have been crafted for the play, but they could stand to regain a little passion.
The exception is one of the Haiti stories, which is taken from a piece of journalism written by an American graduate student who was injured in the earthquake; that segment is rich with specific detail, a cry to outsiders to recognize dimensions of not just this disaster but this culture, to come to terms with the magnitude of the loss. Unlike the other stories, this one ends not with an affirmation of spiritual faith, but with a challenge to the world to listen. I think that's what (UN)Natural Disaster is really about, and what it's trying to do. It's a worthy piece of theatre—I'd love to see it find a little more specificity in its testimonial sections to give it an emotional impact as eloquent as its theatrical one.