Review: "The Wetsuitman" Doesn't Let You Look Away

The Wetsuitman

Written by Freek Mariën

Translated by David McKay

Directed by Samuel Buggeln

Presented by The Cherry Artists' Collective at the Cherry Artspace

102 Cherry Street, Ithaca, NY and via livestreaming

March 25-April 3, 2022

The Wetsuitman featuring Eric Brooks, Amoreena Wade, & Karl Gregory. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
A man who lives on a fjord in Norway comes upon a salt-eaten, wetsuit-clad corpse and some bones while he is walking his dog. His discovery initiates the mystery at the heart of Belgian writer and theater artist Freek Mariën's The Wetsuitman, presented by The Cherry Artists' Collective in a translation by David McKay as part of a joint English-language premiere with the Foreign Affairs Theater Company, London. Based on actual events, with a link to a virtual lobby display in the program and a talkback on April 2nd providing additional context, this finely tuned production of The Wetsuitman starts off as a slightly absurd, meta incarnation of the currently popular Scandinavian crime genre, but its humorous near-pastiche becomes a Trojan Horse for a much sadder type of absurdity as the narrative narrows in on real-world tragedy.
The Wetsuitman featuring Marc Gomes. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
The Wetsuitman's early going is shot through with a postmodern playfulness. The terrific ensemble members–Eric Brooks, Marc Gomes, Karl Gregory, Amoreena Wade, and Sylvie Yntema–often play characters, whose descriptions they announce to the audience, without regard to age, gender or ethnicity and even swap roles at the tap of a shoulder. Wade, for instance, who is not a 50 year-old white man, spends a lot of time as Inspector Westerman, who is, while the male Gomes briefly makes a good middle-aged mother. As the investigation moves into the interview phase, the actors take on a kaleidoscopic range of parts. Westerman, like all proper lead detectives, is haunted by a brutal case from his past; the medical examiner (Gomes), in good Scandnavian noir style, makes sure to point out that Norway is actually the land of alcoholism and suicide; and a number of the interviewees help the audience laugh more than they help the police make progress. At a certain point, however, all of this knowing playfulness recedes, like a retreating wave, as it were, leaving us the corpse on the sand. A corporate spokesperson (Gregory) lampshades this shift when he tells a journalist that if she wants people to pay attention to the story she is working on, she should present it as "a murder mystery or something." Pursuing the identity of the Wetsuitman–and, later, his fellow, found on a beach in the Netherlands–leads into a thicket where racial and national identity, displacement, state violence, and the policing of the modern nation-state and its borders create a nexus of unnecessary suffering–just the sort of unsexy story, to echo that same spokesman's language, of which people do not want to be reminded. Even the intermittent scene-setting projections change in these latter stages–no longer generic images of a fjord or a beach but particular individuals in a particular space and a particular situation.
The Wetsuitman featuring Marc Gomes and Sylvie Yntema. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
Neither the Wetsuitman nor the play that bears his placeholder moniker is at first what it appears. The police joke at one point about how the name sounds like a superhero, but he is not quite that, and if superheroes are to be found anywhere in the world that this play examines, it is not among the police or other state enforcement agents. The play touches on the fact that a location that appears relatively close may nevertheless be unreachable, and, as a metaphor for some of the work's guiding concerns, this observation applies to freedom and opportunity as well. Given the fallout from the current war in Ukraine and coming climate-related displacements, The Wetsuitman should have little problem remaining relevant. In the hands of The Cherry Artists' Collective, The Wetsuitman is profoundly amusing until it is profoundly affecting.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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