To Hell and back. And back. And back.

Itzazoo's "Wet" @ Russian Hall: in-your-face drama of Canadian vets' PTSD 

Fallen warriors. Photo: Matt Reznek

After the usual caveats about cellphones, photos and unceded territories, lobby manager Paige Louter brightly advises that the show we’re about to see entails smoke, loud noises, profanity, nudity, violence, explicit sex, smoke, strobes, claustrophobically confined spaces and no bathroom breaks for 90 minutes. “So enjoy!”

Our little patrol of 28 spectators (capacity crowd for Itsazoo’s boutique staging of David James Brock’s prize-winning 2010 play Wet) is then ushered down to the basement of the Russian Hall. We’re settled into fly-on-the-wall seating around the perimeter of a mock-up Army camp tent. It’s 2006 again, and we’re voyeuristically privy to “Conjugal Day” at a Canadian forward base in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

That means each enlistee gets a private, intimate 20-minute Skype chat with a significant other back home. Burns (Genevieve Fleming), a female newbie, is on the line with her husband, “Sweetie” (Matthew MacDonald-Bain), oscillating between kittenish sexual come-ons and guilt-wracked motherly injunctions about how to nurture the year-old toddler she had to leave behind.

But she’s bundled offline by a bumptious platoon mate, Tom (Praneet Akilla), anxious for his turn at the laptop in hopes of yet another crotch shot of his hometown high school honey. She’s a no-show, this time, though, so – as a veteran of multiple duty tours already – he turns, instead, to offering some battle hardened advice to the greenhorn Burns: bored as she may be with basecamp duties, don’t be too avid for actual combat-zone assignments “outside the wire.”  That way lies madness.

We find out what he means in the next scene, after we’re herded out of the camp tent and into what looks like a cramped Coquitlam basement apartment (1 BR, 1 BA, Kitchenette). “Sweetie,” now in the flesh, bustles about the place, labelling everything – sink, chair, sofa, TV, dish rack, knives. He palms one last post-it note, “FUBAR,” unsure where to stick it, then gives up and shreds it in despair.

Because what’s really FUBAR is Burns herself, as we see when he rolls her out of the bathroom in her wheelchair. She’s home from the wars, but semi-catatonic, unable to stand or speak or even grasp anything in her hand. Meanwhile, their child has been placed with Burns’ estranged mother, their savings wiped out, their veterans’ medical compensation claims endlessly delayed and eventually denied.

Mental pathology is all the more terrifying to both of them since they’ve each survived suicide attempts. In fact they met in rehab and, through their bonding, managed to cure each other of the state of suicidal despair that they’ve come to codename as “Wet” (after the water immersion of slashed wrists). So “Sweetie” is desperate to get Burns “dry” again.

In a series of cameo mini-scenes implying a months-long campaign, he coaxes, condoles, pleads, wheedles, gently teases and eventually scolds and bullies her in a bid – all in vain – to elicit any response. In the process, MacDonald-Bain demonstrates a stellar range of acting chops.

No less impressive is Fleming, who turns in a gut-wrenching performance with nothing but her haunted eyes and facial expressions to convey the seismic processes roiling under her crusted façade. She’s a volcano about to blow.

What finally triggers the eruption is the reappearance of Tom, practically kicking in the apartment door. He has tracked Burns down to seek exculpatory evidence for an Army investigation into the murky Afghanistan incident that got them both discharged. Tom is as strung out as Burns, but with an opposite symptomology: hyper-verbal, touchy and prone to unpredictably violent outbursts.

Akilla brings a staccato energy to the role, by turns insinuatingly sardonic or bluntly explosive. His challenging revelations forcibly crack Burns out of her shell, all the more so after he re-enlists for another Afghanistan tour and reappears – armed and dangerous – in the Coquitlam apartment for a last “farewell visit with friends.”

Burns’ rebound trajectory is steep and fraught, from first faltering steps to an eerie knife dance, an impromptu act of emergency field surgery and, finally, recovery of her sexual nous with “Sweetie.” So that, when sheer economic necessity obliges him, in his turn, to enlist for a war zone deployment, she’s now coquettishly on the receiving end of his flirtatious “Conjugal” Skype call.

Until the connection ends abruptly.

Headlong pacing, smart staging, brilliant performances and edgy dialogue handily override the logical impropbabilities of the story. Wet is not, after all, a documentary about PTSD, but rather an intense love/hate triangle and a piece of persuasive anti-war agit-prop.

Kudos for this innovative rendition go to director Chelsea Haberlin and dramaturge Sebastian Archibald, who co-produced for Itsazoo. They couldn’t have brought it off without the ingenuity of lighting wizard Conor Moore and sound designer Mishelle Cutler. Jenn Stewart’s sets and props and Chantal Short’s costumes stood up admirably to the micro-scrutiny of an on-the-scene, in-your-face audience.

Pop culture connoisseurs can relish the “Naughty Aughtie” memorabilia of the play’s meticulously recreated 2006 milieu: big-screen Skype, cordless (rather than wireless) phones, crudely rat-a-tat video games and such. But, pari passu, the whole scenario could just as easily replay in the present and near future with just minor changes of décor. After all, in the Middle East trauma -- unlike oil -- is a perpetually renewable resource, and so is PTSD.

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