Some life experiences (cannibalism comes to mind) are so horrific that a metaphorical language is needed to stage them. Point taken by Ma-Yi helmer John Gould Rubin, who applies a strong visual idiom to “Trial by Water,” a shattering account of two young Vietnamese brothers adrift on the South China Sea in a disabled boat with starving refugees. But the language of storytelling also must captivate the ear, and the hectoring tone of Qui Nguyen’s preachy text, coupled with monotonous perfs, makes this a heavy crossing.
For once, the deep, dark recesses of the Culture Project’s rectilinear performance space can actually be said to serve a show. In Clint Ramos’ sculptural design, the raw-timbered stage is raked from port to starboard to suggest the hold of a fishing boat, with a few broken ribs of the hull exposed like the naked bones of an animal carcass. With only two silent puppeteers manipulating life-sized figures in the traditional Bunraku manner, this death ship feels all the more eerie for being so underpopulated.
Although the playwright’s stylized sea passage might represent the dangerous journey of any desperate group of refugees, from any place or point in time, a program note identifies it as based on a real journey undertaken by the scribe’s 10-year-old cousin.
Hung Tran was one of the 110 people who set out from Ben Tre harbor in spring 1988 — and one of only 52 who survived the trip on the 33-foot fishing boat, which broke down after a few days and drifted across the South China Sea for more than a month. As their food and water ran out, people sickened and died, and the weakest among them dropped to the bottom of the food chain.
Small wonder that the boy confided to his American cousin, “I think my soul is dead.”
In this fictionalized treatment of his real-life nightmare, Hung (Dinh Q. Doan) is 15 years old and has acquired a younger brother, 10-year-old Huy (Genevieve DeVeyra). Being young and naive and all on their own, the boys have certainly been put in a dramatically charged situation.
But throughout their ordeal, the dynamic of their relationship never changes. Neither does the level of their boyish intelligence. Nor, for that matter, does the substance of their argumentative exchanges.
Hung keeps issuing orders dictated by their military officer father — basic stuff like rationing your food, staying out of sight below deck and avoiding strangers — and Huy keeps disobeying them. Or worse, whining for his own way.
Whatever drama works its way into the piece comes through the persistent overtures of friendship made by Tien Ngo (Arthur Acuna), a dubious character who claims to have served under the boys’ father as a military officer. As conditions worsen on the stranded boat and the starving refugees turn feral, Tien becomes more and more insistent that Hung make some adjustments to his high-minded moral code and take a more pragmatic attitude toward survival. (Like, maybe he should just have a taste of this yummy organ meat.)
Acuna makes Tien a menacing presence without compromising the ambiguity of his character. But his ideological confrontations with Hung, while slightly more substantive, are no less repetitive than the one-note arguments between the two brothers.
Having the boys’ parents appear periodically in flashback scenes along with moments of fantasy fills us in, at least, on the conditions in postwar Saigon that made it seem like a good idea to send two kids like Hung and Huy on such a dangerous trip alone. JoJo Gonzalez has the proper military bearing for the unbending father, and Karen Tsen Lee is touching as the boys’ anxious mother. But again, the exchanges between them and with their sons begin and end as arguments.
At no time, in fact, does anyone in this play ever calm down long enough to have a sober dialogue — or to express a feeling that hasn’t already escalated into hysteria. Right from the top of the show, emotions are pitched so high that when things get really bad on the boat and Hung finally starts to crack, there really isn’t anywhere for him to go except over the edge. And we saw that coming a long time ago.