“Come Hell and High Water” — onstage at UC Davis for three more performances this week — is Granada Artist-in-Residence Dominique Serrand’s absorbing and thought-provoking meditation on people caught up in (and changed by) their experience in a vast natural disaster.
Serrand is working off of several sources — one being William Faulkner’s novella “Old Man,” about a convict detailed to help repair levees during the Great Flood of 1927. That year, the swollen Mississippi River jumped its banks, creating a body of water 50 miles wide and more than 100 miles long, killing hundreds of people.
The convict, a hapless sort, is ordered to take a skiff (which he doesn’t know how to maneuver) and paddle off to rescue a pregnant woman who’s climbed up a tree to escape the rising water. After some misadventures, she finally manages to get into the skiff, then goes into labor and gives birth. The floodwaters carry the skiff all the way to New Orleans, where the convict is taken back into custody and returned to prison.
In addition to incorporating the frame of Faulker’s story, Serrand invokes a second natural disaster. As the convict is finally released (at age 100), Hurricane Katrina comes roaring into New Orleans as the play ends.
This plot summary, however, represents only a portion of what is going on, because Serrand’s play resonates with spiritual (and frequently biblical) imagery, both visually and musically. Think of Noah and the flood, think of baby Moses in a basket among the bulrushes, think of slavery and freedom…
The music deftly incorporates sung passages from classic African-American spirituals, as well as choral music from colonial America as well as the classical era. (Significantly, Serrand describes “Come Hell and High Water” as “an oratorio of sorts” in his director’s note.)
Naturally, the staging includes lots of water: splashing water in sinks, dribbling water from bottles, falling “rain” from overhead pipes. There’s no great effort to make everything “realistic”: the pregnant woman in a tree is actually on top of a refrigerator, the skiff is represented by a four-wheeled dolly, concrete blocks and lumber create the image of people carefully walking through the soggy landscape.
Having personally lived through a significant natural disaster with a pregnant woman — in my case it was an earthquake, my wife was six months pregnant, we had no power or water and we slept outside for several nights— I can say that Serrand gets the experience just about right. Time becomes elongated, so that by the end of the day, you can barely remember what you did in the morning.
Likewise, Serrand understands the way people improvise with found objects — in this play, a discarded tin can with the jagged lid still attached becomes a very useful thing. And the awesome power of the disaster — as you witness things you never expected to see — is simultaneously thrilling and frightening, dislocating and exhausting.
“Come Hell and High Water” is colored by the muddled personality of the Convict, the viewpoint character, played with suitable mousiness by young actor Matthew Dunivan. An older version of the Convict, looking back on the events of the Great Flood, is present in many scenes as the superannuated Old Man (Brian Livingston, using a wheelchair).
The Convict’s life is a series of miscues and mistakes. He was sent to prison after a fruitless attempt to rob a train using a pistol that wouldn’t fire. His relationships with women are invariably disastrous. And in the end, he isn’t especially interested in being free — the understandable routine of prison is in some ways preferable to the confusing world outside that he doesn’t understand.
Avila Reese plays the Woman in a Tree, and she has plenty to do, including giving birth. Tamera Tomakili plays the Deer (a trapped animal that the Convict releases, which then shadows the Convict and the Woman in a Tree for part of their watery journey).
Brendan Ward plays the Warden — the sole authority figure in this story, at once more logical and specifically located in 1927, as compared to the other characters, whose flood experience could fit into almost any era.
All in all, it’s a most interesting piece. Serrand — who won a Tony Award in 2005 for his work with the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune — will stage the professional premiere of “Come Hell and High Water” in Minneapolis in May. But in the meantime, you should give this campus “warm-up” production a try.
Check it out
What: “Come Hell and High Water” (the play includes brief nudity and profanity)
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Main Theatre in Wright Hall at UC Davis
Tickets: $15-$17 general and $11-$13 for students, available online at http://theatredance.ucdavis.edu or by calling (530) 754-2787