Written and directed by Julie Hammond. Presented by Upintheair Theatre as part of the rEvolver Festival. At the Cultch Historic Theatre on Thursday, May 23. Continues until May 26
There’s a lot to appreciate about Julie Hammond’s Other Inland Empires. It’s an ambitious but ultimately confounding mix of surf and SoCal historical pop culture, semiautobiographical travelogue, and first-person audio testimonial from Hammond’s own grandmother recounting her experience as a little girl in a concentration camp. Interspersed throughout its 65-minute runtime are covers of classic California songs by bands like the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. The one-act play was initially inspired by Hammond’s discovery that Gidget, the fictional teenage surfer and titular subject of the 1957 book (and all of the corresponding movies and pop culture it spawned), was actually just like her: an American-born Jew in California. Gidget author Frederick Kohner was an Austrian-born Jew who made his way to America in the mid 1930s. His daughter Kathy was the inspiration for Gidget, the iconic California surfer girl, who’s actually Jewish.
Hammond, who is the main character in Other Inland Empires (performed by Stephanie Wong, who shows a real gift for comedy and singing), sees elements of herself in Gidget, except for the fact that she doesn’t know how to surf, so she heads to Slovakia where her grandmother grew up. It will be part research, part adventure, and part ethnocultural study, because Hammond says she’s conscious of not wanting to be “a tourist in someone else’s trauma”.
Hearing Grandma recount the harrowing details of her youth is something I’m never going to forget, and I’ll be grateful to Hammond and her grandmother forever for sharing her story. It’s just Grandma’s voice coming through the loudspeaker, and the laid-back bustle on-stage (there are a lot of moving props and scenes, like inflatable palm trees and beach chairs and blankets, that are set up and struck within minutes) fades away, and we just listen. It’s perfect. But the significance of this component makes the rest of the play feel trivial, and it doesn’t help when some of the through lines are so shaky.
For example, Hammond has written a scene recounting a pretty funny and horrifying dental experience in Slovakia, and then attempts to draw parallels to Nazis taking teeth from Jewish people in concentration camps. The cast even breaks the fourth wall when Hammond emerges from the audience to hand one of the actors the dental implant from her mouth, which feels unnecessary. The music is great, in that the small cast performing the songs are good vocalists and musicians, but this also never feels seamlessly integrated.
The play feels like a work in progress rather than a cohesive piece of theatre. Other Inland Empires has a lot of potential, but Hammond never quite realizes her vision.