What was supposed to be a celebratory getaway to Costa Rica for local improv comedian Greg Tavares and his wife quickly turned dark when Tavares decided to take on “monster-sized waves” on his stand-up paddleboard.
“I got worked by a wave,” Tavares said. “I got separated from my guide that was with me. I got separated from my board. I didn't have a flotation device and I had to fight my way back in. I almost didn't make it.”
Nearly three years later, Tavares still is traumatized by his near-drowning experience, he said. One thing that has helped him cope is telling his story in a new one-man show, “I Am the Horrible Thing,” which he workshopped at Pure Theatre in the spring of 2018.
This year he will be presenting the show as part of Piccolo Fringe at Theatre 99, before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
This show is an artistic departure for the 50-year-old improv comic, who gets deeply personal as he recounts his experience, sharing childhood memories of growing up in Hawaii. Being serious in front of an audience made Tavares a little uneasy.
“At first, I was kind of afraid that people would laugh during it because they would think I was supposed to be funny,” Tavares said.
While he admits there are some funny moments — such as the story of his father taking the family to a nudist beach — the show is, more than anything, about his “harrowing” brush with death.
It’s not the inspirational story audiences might expect.
“I tried to fly in the face of some of the stereotypes about the idea of a true-life, near-death experience,” he said.
Audiences will not hear Tavares talk about how flowers smell sweeter, or how one is supposed to view every day as if it’s the “best day of your life.” Nor will he ask patrons for sympathy.
“I'm embarrassed that I almost got myself killed,” he said.
“I Am the Horrible Thing” is Tavares’ “loving tribute to the ocean for not killing (him),” and a way to process the fact that he lived.
He did not let it stop him from getting back out into the ocean; Tavares still tries to paddleboard at least once a week, though he must fight through his fear. Returning to the water has been therapeutic, he said.
Writing and performing the show forced Tavares to revisit his trauma and also figure out how best to engage the audience.
“My job is to re-live it in a way that's passionate, connected and feels like it's happening,” Tavares said. “The funny thing is that people, when they see it, sometimes have told me they're actually worried I'm not going to make it out.”
Spoiler alert: he does.
Madalyn Owen is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.