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International WOW's interactive simulated war experience is dynamic, educational, and moving. logo
Mike Callaghan in Surrender
(© Matt Sanchez)
If you have an aversion to interactive theater, then International WOW's latest, Surrender, is probably not the show for you. However, if you give yourself over to this simulated war experience, currently ensconced at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, it can be dynamic, educational, and moving.

Writer-director Josh Fox has teamed up with Iraq War veteran and author Jason Christopher Hartley to create a unique environmental theater piece that takes the audience on a journey from basic training to deployment to a bittersweet homecoming. It starts out with participants receiving a uniform and rifle, and being assigned to squads. For those less inclined to go all out, there is an option to be an observer only. If you are participating, however, I'd like to offer a few tips: 1) Make sure to ask for your correct boot size. Mine were just a little too tight and rather constricting by the end of the nearly four-hour evening. 2) Travel light. You're given one garbage bag to put your clothes and other personal belongings in for the duration of the show, so don't bring lots of stuff with you. 3) Take it seriously. While there is an enjoyment factor to the war games being played out, you'll get more out of the experience if you're not joking around with your buddies or rolling your eyes at the things you're asked to do.

As the show begins in earnest, participants are taught how to hold and fire their weapon, secure a room, search a dead body, and other basic military techniques. It's a crash course, to be sure, and it's doubtful that most audience participants are quite ready for active duty, but soon enough we're sent into a maze of rooms set up to test our newly learned skills. At least two actors are included in each unit, one of whom is the squad leader. My group was fortunate to have the excellent Mike Callaghan, who efficiently led us through the enemy territory. Since our training was fairly minimal, the threat level was correspondingly not that high, with insurgents being killed relatively easily and only a few surprises. And while the tight spaces, darkened hallways, and nerve wracking aural environment (the excellent sound design is by Fox) help to get the adrenaline pumping, at no time do you ever really feel in danger. In many ways, the experience is less like actual combat and more like a highly immersive video game. Still, not everyone makes it out "alive," and part of the experience is dealing with the dead and wounded.

The final segment of the show is the most traditionally theatrical, with scenes being played out in front of the now-seated audience that demonstrate the process of soldiers reintegrating into society. However, select participants are called out and instructed to come to the stage, and several are asked to read aloud dialogue projected onto video monitors. This is potentially the riskiest part of the whole production, as some audience members may be resistant or find this aspect off-putting. Perhaps there's a screening process involved, but in any case those called upon to serve at the performance I attended did so with aplomb. In fact, their sometimes halting cadences as they read out their pre-scripted lines merely added to the illusion of disorientation and disconnection that their "characters" were supposedly feeling. These participants also help to increase identification with the often trying circumstances depicted, as the rest of the audience are literally seeing one of their own go through them.

The scenes themselves showcase Fox's penchant for surreal imagery, and one sequence even mirrors a scene from an earlier International WOW show, You Belong to Me, in which a soldier in a wheelchair is surrounded by actors in cartoonish animal costumes to reflect his hallucinatory state. All of the actors give committed performances in a variety of roles -- from soldiers, to doctors, nurses, flight attendants, terrorists, and victims -- and effectively guide the audience participation. Many individual moments in this final segment are highly effective, but it also goes on a bit too long and some judicious editing could strengthen its impact.

Interestingly, at no time during the entire evening is ideology invoked. The reasons the U.S. Army is in Iraq are never mentioned. And while the play is certainly about the war, it never comes down as being for or against it. The closest we get to a political statement is a civilian wearing an Obama T-shirt in the third act. What this innovative and provocative production does do, however, is provide a little more empathy for the soldiers who have fought overseas, and come back home to a society that doesn't necessarily understand what they've been through.

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