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This Is War shines critical light on the Canadian military

Posted by Keith Bennie / January 10, 2013

this is war theatre torontoRarely are the stakes as high as they are in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, where a wrong move under siege could mean life or death. Hannah Moscovitch's This Is War certainly drives that point home and then some. Not simply a play ripped from the headlines, the playwright explores the pressures of the war zone through a consideration of gender, sex, and trauma on the base.

The scene is set with an investigation underway over an incident involving Canadian forces in Panjwaii, Afghanistan. Through the questioning of an offstage interviewer that prompts scenes from the front lines, we learn from those involved how it all went down. Shouldering responsibilities for the actions of that day are Master Corporal Tanya Young (Lisa Berry), a lone female soldier among her male counterparts, Jonny Henderson (Ian Lake), a young private fresh into battle, and Captain Stephen Hughes (Ari Cohen), who is the head of the operation.

The scenes that play out after questioning almost always contradict given answers. Those complicit in the events, we learn, lie about their actions in order to save face. The effect serves Moscovitch well. There are a lot of puzzle pieces revealed the deeper we delve. The dialogue is often raw and aggressive, and many of the misogynist taunts and gruesome descriptions of death seem to hang in the air.

The playwright has made an effort to dig deep into the environment of the Panjwaii base, imagining how our human concerns (such as desires for sex, alcohol, and power) play out amidst isolation and artillery. Sex is the tipping point that brings trauma to the surface, and it proves to be a unique lens through which to consider the pressures of war.

The three perspectives, while mostly compelling, are unevenly balanced. It's refreshing to see monologues replaced with an alternative format--maybe a journalist or an investigator asking the questions--but the third and final retelling is shorter and brings us only one revelation. As well, the fourth character, a gay medic named Anders (Sergio Di Zio), feels a bit out of place as a lone witness standing idly by.

Director Richard Rose transitions between interviews and scenes of battle well, although the final testimony from Anders seems an odd footnote. Rose has worked with designers Camellia Koo and Thomas Ryder Payne to charge the space. Koo envelops the action in camouflage netting that transforms the Tarragon's Extra Space into a desert-like hovel, no doubt creating lighting challenges for Rebecca Picherack. Meanwhile, Payne's composition crackles and pops with the sounds of war.

Of the three, Lake finds the most layers in Jonny's youthful fragility and PTSD ticks. He's the most fleshed out of the characters by far. Cohen also finds some moments as the tough Captain, with the story about his daughter Bella chief among them. Berry's staccato Master Corporal is the one we know the least about, and it's a missed opportunity to help anchor her role among the men on the Canadian base.

There are a few missing pieces and some structural challenges still to overcome, but Moscovitch manages to bring some compelling human elements out from under the rubble.

This is War, written by Hannah Moscovitch and directed by Richard Rose, runs at the Tarragon Theatre until February 3.

Photo from This Is War



Grimzeek / January 10, 2013 at 05:14 pm
Finally, a discussion of the current conflict in Canadian theater. We should be seeing more plays like this, and hopefully, they won't be sugarcoating the war experience, or serving as recruiting tools. I think that I'll be going to this one.
Lee Roberts / January 13, 2013 at 08:41 am
Wow, finally a hard hitting exposé of what it's REALLY like over there, portrayed with AUTHENTIC passion and angst! As an infantryman with several tours in Afghanistan I cannot wait to see how this play is written. It must be good for at least a few laughs if nothing else.
Paul / January 13, 2013 at 11:02 am
Wonder how she achieves accuracy -- not just art.
I was roped into one of these as a veteran of the UN mission during the Bosnian War.
What I passed on to the playwright and director bore no resemblance to what they put on stage.
The Universal Curmudgeon / January 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm
More properly the play should be titled "This is what I think war is even though I don't actually have any real knowledge with the subject and don't really want to find out because I already know that all soldiers are brutal rapists and killers who never tell the truth about anything - oh yes, and those people who purportedly crashed aircraft into the WTC on 9/11 were really innocent victims of an evil capitalist society and the secret cabal that actually runs the world - oh, and I almost forgot, it's completely different from bombing, arson, and/or killing in a 'good cause'.".
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