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Play a powerful reminder of jackpot we put our troops in

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Hannah Moscovitch's This is War finds Canadian soldiers trying to do right on the desert battlefields of Afghanistan, where everything around them seems to be going wrong.

The moral certainty of their mission offers little protection against a Taliban force that is near impossible to distinguish from civilians, booby-traps the road with IEDs and deploys underage recruits as suicide bombers. As formidable as that enemy is, Moscovitch suggests that members of our combat infantry are also caught in firefights with themselves, with the code of conduct they were raised with in Canada and the consequences of shooting at a threatening target shrouded in the fog of war.

This is War, a production of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre hosted by Prairie Theatre Exchange, offers no real revelations on the war-is-hell theme but is a powerful reminder of the ethical jackpot and dangerous demands we place upon our troops in harm's way.

And the reality grips a little tighter because Moscovitch reflects on Canada's military experience in Afghanistan on stage for the first time -- seen through the eyes of stressed-out soldiers who call Red Deer and Hamilton home. The result is that audiences cannot distance themselves from the platoon members in This is War. We don't have the excuse we often use when watching American war movies that they are not like us because these soldiers could be our brothers and sisters.

To foster a we're-all-in-this-together feel, set designer Camellia Koo has covered the PTE stage and audience in sandy-coloured camouflage netting. As the audience enters it quickly becomes aware of Thomas Ryder Payne's unsettling soundscape of gunfire and moans.

Soon into this intense 90-minute, intermission-less drama, we learn there has been an atrocity committed during a joint operation with the Afghanistan army. This is War plays out like a documentary about what happened, with four soldiers replaying the events of the night before and then switching to uncomfortably answering questions at some unidentified inquiry. Director Richard Rose keeps the action moving, even through a darkout scene, with a military crispness.

Moscovitch takes us into a suffocating Canadian desert encampment in the volatile Panjwaii region where we meet a private named Jonny (Ian Lake), a medic Chris (Brendan Murray), Tanya (Lisa Berry), a female master corporal and their captain Stephen (John Cleland).

Life behind the wire is a troubling mix of boredom, anxiety and raging hormones. Tanya remains traumatized by her fatal mistake on a previous tour of duty. She is the target of sexual advances from the married captain and the younger, naive Jonny. She gives in, hoping to feel something or at least break the tedium. Berry's tough-girl performance is especially bruising and earns the most empathy for her emotionally wounded character.

Guilt is something the military personnel must deal with every day. Their good intentions often cause tragic situations and will be the subject of second-guessers back home. Should a helicopter be held in reserve for an injured soldier or be dispatched immediately for a dying Afghan boy? No matter the answer, both could end in sorrow. Still, Moscovitch provocatively asks her audiences whether her combatants did the right thing.

Each of the four soldiers seemingly take the stand, or at least are in the spotlight, and answer unheard questions about the fateful night, giving Moscovitch time to reveal more and more details that implicate them in the final catastrophe. Lake is compelling as the tragic Jonny while Cleland's captain is not so well-drawn by the playwright and Stephen emerges as a confusing father figure.

Chris, the medic, tends to physical injuries and dispenses comforting words to members of his platoon but is wholly incapable of dealing decisively with the less obvious effects of stress and battle fatigue. Murray finds the humanity in Chris and gets the last word in This is War, angrily asking a pointed question to the questioners.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Theatre Review

This is War

Prairie Theatre Exchange

To March 10

Tickets: $25-$47 at www.pte.mb.ca

4 stars out of 5

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2013 D3

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