By David James Brock. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. An ITSAZOO production. At the Russian Hall on Saturday, May 12. Continues until May 27
To see Wet, we descend from an early-summer evening in Strathcona to the basement of the Russian Hall. We turn a corner and suddenly we’re in a long, narrow BAT—a big-ass tent—on a Canadian military base in Afghanistan.
You’re first struck by the smell of the plywood that forms the tent’s walls and floor. The sounds of the base—vehicles and men shouting—leak in from “outside”. The audience sits in a single row of chairs on each side of the room and the action begins.
This is immersive theatre—more immersive than any virtual-reality experience I’ve tried. There’s no stage because everything is the stage.
Wet tells the story of Burns (Genevieve Fleming), a second lieutenant in the Canadian military. We first meet her as she calls home from a base in Afghanistan, teasing her young husband, Michael (Matthew MacDonald-Bain).
But this Skype call is just a prologue to the play’s main action, where we watch Michael care for a wheelchair-bound, traumatized Burns after her return to Canada.
Set designer Jenn Stewart has transmogrified the Russian Hall basement into two finely detailed rooms. After the tent, we stumble down a dark corridor that crashes with the sounds of war into a dank, low-ceilinged basement apartment. The nuances of the claustrophobic design, from the too-small loveseat to the tattered posters on the wall, tell us so much about this young military couple’s increasingly desperate circumstances.
We line the walls of this room, too. Here, our experience of the show becomes even more intense. Voices are raised, weapons are brandished, and there’s an attempted rape, all within arm’s reach of the audience.
It’s tough for the actors to have the audience right on top of them but they handle the proximity with courage. Fleming, in particular, was so vulnerable at times that I had to look away.
Part of the show’s power is in the way it demands we become clear-eyed witnesses. However, some of the action feels too big for the space. I wonder if the performers and director Chelsea Haberlin could have dialled back the clamour to keep us more focused on the story.
Finding the right ending to a story is, for many writers, the hardest part. This is the case with Wet. David James Brock’s script loses some of its self-assurance in the final minutes and the production seems to reflect that uncertainty.
Still, there’s so much to like in Wet—it brims with both fragility and menace. Attendees may need to steel themselves for this R-rated experience, but it’s a rewarding one.