The stage is vast and dark and almost empty, inhabited only by two sets of tiny luminescent skeletons and bouquets of flowers like ghosts on the far right and left sides. A single stream of light pours down onto a man garbed entirely in immaculate white lying on the floor. A mirror rests behind him at an angle so we can see him looking at himself, and brooding music slowly spills from unseen speakers as the man starts to thrash and flail in slow motion, a lone soul falling through a void.
The ominous histrionics that begin “Mayday Mayday” create a mood steeped in otherness and isolation. After five minutes, though, the house lights flash on (a revelatory bit of contrasting brilliance) and Tristan Sturrock greets the audience in an affable British accent: “This happened to me.”
Cornwall, England, 2004. It’s May Day, a day of celebration: “This is the beginning. This incessant music won’t stop for the next twenty-four hours. Happy May Day.” Sturrock’s had a few pints. He climbs the steps to his home (37 steps for his 37 years) and, after receiving a phone call from his then-girlfriend (now wife), sits on a wall, leans back and falls 10 feet, breaking his neck at the C5 vertebrae.
He’s paralyzed from the neck down. “What a stupid way to die,” he says.
Like its namesake holiday, “Mayday Mayday” is essentially concerned with death and birth and beauty, a piece of theatrical kalology. It depicts Sturrock’s accident, his girlfriend discovering his body static and alone, the ride to the hospital and the eccentric cast of characters who all helped to save Sturrock’s life, the incalculably difficult decisions (“Halo brace or operation?”), the process of repairing his body, relearning how to walk, the fire-and-ice sensation that will never leave his arms and the omnipresence of his son’s approaching birth.
A deft griot, Sturrock and his director, Katy Carmichael (who is also the aforementioned girlfriend-turned-wife), make the story of his near-death hypnotic, using stirring imagery to portray those intricacies of emotions that elude oration. When Sturrock tells us he’s going where he’s always been, “the theater” (meaning the operating theater), he prepares for self-vivisection by “creating a character” and donning makeup and costume and, with dexterous coordination (never mind that he was paralyzed eight years ago), performs an operatic operation with thick tendrils of smoke enveloping him.
With its tragic origins and inherently empathetic themes, “Mayday Mayday” could have been an exercise in self-pity and plodding melodrama, and there’s an undeniable permeation of pretension that sometimes feels a little ham-fisted, but Sturrock keeps everything balanced (balance being an emotionally tangible theme here). He uses toy cars and a cavalcade of silly sounds and music to lighten the mood, his blend of jovial surrealism and unflinching navel-gazing bound together with geniality.
Sturrock is amazingly saltant, leaping and jete-ing across the stage, and his show’s good-natured, life-affirming fervor is more than enough to usurp the sometimes subtle, Terrence Malick-lite hijinks. The show’s final thoughts are less than profound — we’re all fragile and life isn’t so bad — but “Mayday Mayday” is pleasant entertainment with a big beating heart.
Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.