Theater review: Power of “Water Board” undeniable, but execution is problematic
There are such powerful ideas behind “Water Board: A Play About Torture” that its technical failings seem ultimately unimportant.
That sure isn’t how I felt while watching the show, though, or at least some of it. The July 23 production at the YMCA Theater in Central Square was dragged down by abundant miscues and mistakes that distracted from its ideas and, especially in the first half, diminished its power. The audience was an earnest one, in obvious agreement with a critical look at the United States’ use of torture and as a result forgiving of glitches, but members’ powers of concentration and comprehension were tested nonetheless.
Projected text appeared for only a second, while the recording of the text went on. Or the text didn’t appear at all. Or projected images were broken by objects at the front of the stage and unreadable. A projected frame persisted in appearing and drifting on the rear curtain while audience attention should have been elsewhere. Someone on the tech crew kept messing with the pointer, which wiggled and drew aimless rectangles for all to see.
Meanwhile, play text from documents mined by Harvard-trained historian Stephanie Skier (an actor, co-producer and director as well as playwright for “Water Board”) led me and other audience members through the history of water torture — in the Philippines and in Japan during World War II in addition to more recent U.S. use — if we could stay focused and follow. The staging also was on the clunky side, overshadowing too frequently the cleverness and power of such ideas and images as the actors talking torture while lolling innocently in matching azure kiddie pools. I understand the frugal nature of the production; in an ideal world, though, the show would get an outside director who could keep the onstage business flowing and smooth, and who would have insisted on ensuring the show’s technical problems were ironed out as well.
But the accomplishments of Skier and fellow actor and producer Nadeem Mazen shouldn’t be diminished by the criticism. These are two people who were doing too much in too short a time with too few resources. One can wish they could have focused more on their onstage presence, but that’s an idle wish for people also busy creating flash video, writing brilliant satiric duets, passing out fliers and taking on the million and one other tasks demanded by setting a show date and sticking to it.
Their ideas are what count here, and in the second act especially, the ideas pay off with devastating power. The second act, after all, is when Skier and Mazen waterboard each other.
That’s when the audience leans forward breathlessly and silently and, as the pouring of water goes on and on, shifts uncomfortably and really starts thinking.
That’s when the audience realizes with discomfort that it can compare its passive watching of waterboarding on stage with its actions or lack of same when news of U.S. torture came to light. That’s when the question of complicity arises, when audience members wonder whether they’re in fact supposed to rise up and stop what’s going on in front of them (one watcher called out to Skier from the audience, “You don’t have to go another round”), whether something could go wrong on stage, how they’d feel if an actor died or was incapacitated doing this, how they should feel knowing innocent people elsewhere have already been killed or hurt this way in their name.
There’s enough good and impressive in “Water Board” that the shortcomings are painful; in Cambridge, it plays to an audience that is willing to listen, but future productions could have more to accomplish with skeptical or ignorant crowds who won’t have the patience to listen through problems with blocking, pace or backstage technology.
Since those are exactly the crowds the show should reach, Skier and Mazen are seeking contributions toward future, improved productions. (Some of the money from the July 23 show went to Amnesty International’s efforts against terrorism.) Contributors can find contact information here.