Writer: Freek Mariën
Translator: David McKay
Director: Samuel Buggeln
Deep into the journey of what starts out as a likely murder investigation in Norway, a corporate spokesperson in Calais, France tells a journalist that “refugees aren’t sexy” and don’t make for a story anyone wants to hear. He tells her that if she “really can’t leave it alone” she needs to “hook them,” and “tell them it’s a murder mystery or something.” One wonders if playwright Freek Mariën had that exact conversation with someone in his life, as that is the journey taken through The Wetsuitman, now making its English language premiere with the Cherry Artspace in Ithaca, New York.
Inspired by actual events, The Wetsuitman is an insightful exploration into the darker side of humanity. Doses of black humor and stark reality come together to slowly reveal the truth behind the play’s opening event—a wetsuit discovered on the edge of a Norwegian fjord, by an architect out for a morning walk with his dog. Protruding through the wetsuit is one human bone.
From the difficulties experienced and emotional baggage carried by the detectives who open the case, to the Syrian family introduced in the final scene, nothing turns out to be quite what it seems at first. There are no hard truths or easily discernible facts. The characters who are most willing to offer concrete statements are often the most questionable, with the least sympathy for others.
Cross-gender and cross-ethnic casting, with the ensemble of actors verbalizing their opposing character descriptions as they move from playing one person to another, buttress the overarching theme of an inherent shared humanity and the work it takes to maintain and remember that perspective on each other. Inside and alongside this overall premise and examination of racism, Mariën deftly inserts commentary on modern technology, corporate optics, and journalistic sensibilities.
Director Samuel Buggeln employs minimal staging to great advantage, traveling between distinct locations with simple set changes and the occasional screen projection. Watching the live stream from home is an imperfect adventure, with some odd, sharp cuts and questionable camera placements that may negatively affect the in-person viewing experience. Though this attempt to create a multi-dimensional streaming experience may need practice, it is thoroughly employed and there are some clear & purposeful choices used to great effect. That the attempt itself is being employed at all deserves praise.
Perceived glitches aside, both technologically and with some ultimately inconsequential character development choices, The Wetsuitman presents heavy topics with compassion and humor, and without imposing explicit judgment on the characters that epitomize the lower traits of our societies. It pays respect to people for whom respect and attention have often been discarded. It provides an opportunity for viewers to see their best and worst selves in the stories of others, and that is one of the greatest offerings a piece of live performance can give.
Runs until 3 April 2022