“Ride the Wave” is a new play by Mattie Barber-Bockelman, now getting its Austin premiere at the Vortex. Directed by Teresa Cruz, the play is set roughly in the 2060s and follows three surfer boys on the last day of summer.
In this version of the future, climate change has made weather patterns strange, but it is still possible to live with and enjoy nature. In the beach town where Sketch (Aylin Eker), Trevor (playwright Mattie Barber-Bockelman), and Matt (Riana Moore) live, for instance, changes in wave patterns have made for thrilling surfing conditions.
The playful set, conceived by director Teresa Cruz and created collaboratively by Brandi Alexander, Daniel Hernandez, Alex Cogburn and Lilly Percifield, is built into a corner of the Vortex’s intimate space. On the back wall, a hand-drawn sun rises and then disappears as the time-of-day changes. The rest of the set consists of a section of boardwalk and a tower, from which one member of the surfer crew, part-time radio show host Sketch, forecasts perfect weather.
As the friend group assembles and prepares to hit the waves, their dialogue is packed with humor driven by their carefree attitudes, excitability, and slang. In addition to their contagious energy, Barber-Bockelman captures just how easily bro-talk can escalate into executing dumb ideas, like breaking down the boardwalk to turn it into a bonfire.
The friends are having a perfect day, but something seems subtly off with the ocean, which makes Sketch particularly unnerved. A freak rainstorm sends the friends in separate directions – Sketch to the broadcast studio, Trevor home, and Matt to his crush’s car – but they plan to reconvene for a night surf. When they do, it’s still not safe to go out.
Tensions build, and an anxious Trevor is so wrapped up in his insecurity that the friend group might be drifting apart that, when Matt comes out to his friends, he initially can’t see the beauty in the moment. When the friends turn their attention back to the ocean, a massive wave is rising toward them, and they’re paralyzed. The friends’ underwater journey is transformative. Although they’d like to imagine it differently, they admit they weren’t prepared for the wave.
When the wave hits, they are sent into a bioluminescent underwater world populated by massive jellyfish. These creatures, built by Lilly Percifield out of plastic scraps and coat hangers, are beautiful. Under Brandi Alexander’s mysterious underwater lighting design, elements of the set and costumes glow too.
All three of the play’s ‘surfer bro’ characters are portrayed by actresses, who approach the roles with joy and care, but the gender swapping and the cast’s acting style create a distancing effect. The performers often seem less than entirely at home in their ‘bro’ characters, but this slightly stilted acting style gives extra weight to each casual touch, making the boys’ intimacy with each other extra noticeable. As a program note from the director and playwright indicates, “the surfer boy bit is freeing.” It gives the collaborators “license to go big and broad.” Yet, even as these characters are played as part of a bit, they have believable friendships and conflicts.
The version of a climate change future “Ride the Wave” presents offers so much more hope than the one of mass death, destruction, and starvation that seems to be coming with every mudslide, wildfire, hurricane, and rise in the sea levels. But even within the world of the play, it’s not all sick waves to surf. In one goofy yet haunting exchange, the friends reflect on food waste- specifically chicken bones, and imagine them thrown in the ocean, then eerily drifting ashore.
Ultimately, the play is about this not knowing what to do, being part of the cycles of nature, and the beauty we can experience anyway if we cling to friendship and commit to facing the future. Ending with a jubilant lip-sync to Dane Terry’s “Rough Weather,” “Ride the Wave” is a fun, resonant journey that invites creativity and imagination as we build a collective future.
‘Ride the Wave’ continues through Jan. 28 at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Road. vortexrep.org