Review: In Rivendell’s Wipeout, Three Friends Navigate the Waves, and the Aging Process, With Humor and Tenacity

Review by Devony Hof. 

“This is what I love about being old!” proclaims one of the characters in Aurora Real de Asua’s new play, Wipeout, directed by Rivendell artistic director Tara Mallen. “You can get away with anything!”

This glorious cry epitomizes three friends’ attempts to recapture their youthful freedom, and their decades-long bond, during a surfing lesson off the Santa Cruz coast. Part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, Rivendell’s production of Wipeout immerses audiences in the surf culture of the Pacific Coast, even as it grapples with the anxieties of growing old.

Upon entering the theater, audiences are given a program with a glossary of surf terms while breezy surf music reverbs through the speakers. The play takes place entirely on the water, with the three women, and their put-upon surf instructor, perched on wheeling surfboards. This act of floating over the deep becomes a metaphor for the losses that confront a person as they age, although the surfboards start to feel limiting after a while, constraining the actors to a sitting position for most of the play.

We first meet Wynn (Meg Thalken), who recently separated from her fourth husband, and Claudia (Celeste Williams), a perennial worrier trying to reunite her friends before it’s too late. When Margaret (Cindy Gold), called Gary by her friends, joins the group, we quickly learn that her rapidly declining memory is the cause of estrangement between her and her best friend, Wynn.

Golden and Thalken. Photo credit: Jenn Udoni.

Under Mallen’s direction, the dialogue remains snappy throughout and the play rides the waves to a poignant conclusion. The cast is uniformly strong. Gold gives a heartbreaking performance as the hilarious and raunchy Gary, a woman struggling to stay afloat. Thalken imbues her character with a spiky wit and skillfully conveys Wynn’s barely concealed fear over the changes rocking her closest circle. Whether or not she will answer Claudia’s plea—forcefully voiced by Williams—to confront the future together is Wipeout’s biggest question. 

As 19-year-old surf instructor Blaze, Glenn Obrero performs a tricky balancing act opposite three women out of their element. Real de Asua deconstructs the surfer-boy trope through Blaze, unpacking his family life with care, and Obrero lends a natural ease to the character. A couple of Blaze’s monologues feel flat in comparison to the women’s crackling back-and-forths, but he plays a key part in the moving conclusion.

The combined design efforts of lighting (Michael Mahlum), sound (Victoria Delorio), set (Caitlyn Girten), costume (Evelyn Danner) and the movement consultant, Devon de Mayo, immerse the audience in the coastal atmosphere. Little touches, like light effects when one of the women splashes another, or the bubbling visuals that overtake the projection screen when Blaze tells us that catching a wave is about feeling the water’s energy, draw on the space’s potential.

Wipeout exhorts audiences to live in the present. In depicting the courage it takes to ride atop the tenuous line between soaring high and wiping out, Real de Asua shows audiences that surfing is just a state of mind.

Wipeout has been extended through April 14 at the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N Ridge Ave. Tickets are $28-94. Running time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Get your tickets here or by phone at 773-334-7728.

Devony Hof is a Chicago-based writer. Originally from Palo Alto, Calif., she graduated from Northwestern with degrees in English and theater and has been writing everything from poems to plays to reviews ever since.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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