Many memorial services claim to be "a celebration of life." They try to turn a tragic event -- the death of a loved one -- into an occasion to share joyful, happy memories. The University Theatre production of David Saar's The Yellow Boat (through April 18 at UW Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre) actually succeeds at this task. It turns a true story about the life and death of Benjamin Saar, a young man affected first by hemophilia and then by HIV/AIDS, into a magical performance about a boy's ability to escape his illnesses and other daily struggles through art.
By embracing imagination and color, Benjamin not only creates exciting new worlds to explore, he fashions his own beautiful narrative about his inevitable end -- a journey that he must take alone, like the yellow boat of a traditional folk song that sails up to the sun instead of returning to the harbor. The non-linear, fantastical, poetic script gives director Heather Pickering and her cast of 11 students a lot of room to play.
As a piece developed for young audiences, it uses musical stagecraft to hold the audience's attention throughout the performance. Actors scamper and serpentine through the space with colorful, flowing strips of silk, attaching adventures and emotions to the words "blue," "green," "purple" and "yellow." Fabric falls from the ceiling and is used to draw shapes in the air and even to create pirate ships. Red umbrellas open and close to symbolize the pain of injections. Enlarged, two-dimensional drawings populate Benjamin's reality as well as the fantasy.
This mixture of creative movement vignettes with realistic, comic and surreal scenes is realized, literally, on a blank canvas. The inventive, stunningly executed set by Andrea Alguire is an enormous easel with paper that covers two walls and the length of the Hemsley Theatre. The stage is flanked by oversized crayons, paintbrushes, markers, pencils and pots of paint that become stage pieces, brilliantly wrought in bright primary colors.
The story is largely narrated by Benjamin himself (the confident and charismatic young Rizvan Moe), from his birth to ecstatic parents (charmingly played by Anne Guadagnino and Christian Inouye) through his various diagnoses, doctor visits, estrangement from friends as the panic about AIDS spreads, and his eventual physical decline and death. It is told honestly, without the melodrama or overly didactic tone that usually accompanies such stories.
As Benjamin's world becomes more painful and confusing, it also becomes more ridiculous. Portraying health-care workers, the news media, school staff and other characters, the seven-actor chorus occasionally strays too far into manic caricature but generally do a good job filling the world of the play. Sam Christian stands out in the group as particularly able to create compelling connections through an array of characters.
Joy, a child-life specialist at the hospital, comforts the depressed and fragile Benjamin in his final weeks by re-engaging him with art. These scenes are perhaps the most touching of the play, rendered with great strength and generosity of spirit by Amy Bahr.
While the story of a child contracting AIDS through a blood transfusion plays differently now than it did in the early 1990s, when the drama debuted, The Yellow Boat is an inspiring evening that clearly shows the power of art to transform,and even celebrate the most devastating losses.