Belarus Free Theatre
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
April 16, 2011
Belarus Free Theatre is presenting three of their shows in repertory at La MaMa (in a co-production with The Public Theater). Three of nytheatre.com's reviewers covered the works; their impressions are below.
Being Harold Pinter
reviewed by Loren Noveck
On December 19, 2010, masses of Belarusians flooded the streets of Minsk to protest the reelection to a fourth term of President Alexander Lukashenko, in an election widely presumed to be rigged. More than a thousand of those protestors were arrested, including Natalia Koliada, artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre. Koliada was released, but her husband, playwright Nikolai Khalezin, went into hiding to protect himself. In order to perform Being Harold Pinter in this January’s Under the Radar Festival in New York, the troupe essentially had to smuggle themselves out of their own country; they’ve been unable to return home since.
All of which is to say that the context and the urgency with which Belarus Free Theatre approaches the works of Harold Pinter is inevitably vastly different than that of most theatre audiences, and theatre artists, in the U.S. or the U.K., no matter how familiar we may be with Pinter. Where an American audience may see a characteristically Pinteresque pause as a mystery to be solved—an opaque or oblique silence that we strive to fill with meaning—this piece puts it in context, all too often, as either something all the characters know they are forbidden to say, or as a threat so clearly implied it need not be stated. It situates the universe of Pinter’s plays as an explication of life under dictatorship, censorship, and repression.
Being Harold Pinter weaves cross-sections from six of the plays (translated into Russian and Belarusian and then back into English via projected supertitles) into a complex, at times impressionistic whole, built on simple but striking theatrical imagery and rich with ideas about the relationships among power, violence, emotion, and language; about the interpenetration of personal relationships with political structures, and the ways language can be used both as a weapon to break ties among people, and a tool that helps us to uphold our shared obligations to the social order. The arc of the piece is from the domestic sphere outward—from crippled, warped relationships between father and son or lovers to crippled, warped relationships between individuals and the state, or between private citizens and nameless figures of authority. Pinter’s complicated regimes of text and subtext, of meaning and silence, become oddly straightforward—a journey of necessity through the progression of ways language can dehumanize and rehumanize us, through the mission we must as human beings and as artists take on.
The excerpts are framed and linked by the text of Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which speaks explicitly about the responsibilities of the writer and the citizen, as well as the mysteries of inspiration and the impulse to create; Pinter himself becomes the piece’s most consistent and most vivid character—in a sense, its hero. It is Pinter’s mission—to be both a responsible artist and a responsible citizen—that the piece wishes, I think, to leave us with. Or even, to charge us with.
The final component of the text comes from the testimonies of Belarusian political prisoners—about how they were taken, the conditions in which they were held, their fears. Where the rest of the piece is brightly lit, drawn in a stark palette of reds and blacks, this section is told by flashlight only, with the players hooded. Where the sections from Pinter’s speech are performed in a convivial, intimate direct address to the audience, and the Pinter scenes acted with stylized verve and sharp energy, this section is stripped down, eerily quiet, compelling attention by its utter simplicity.
Throughout the piece, and never more than in this section, I kept forgetting at moments that I didn’t speak Russian or Belarusian; I wanted to give the performers, and the stories they were telling, the quality of full, present attention their performances and their utmost sense of purpose and focus demanded and deserved, and as a consequence I’d forget to look at the supertitles and lose my place in the storytelling.
As Pinter says in his Nobel speech:
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
Through Pinter’s words, through Pinter’s plays, and through their countrymen’s experiences, the artists of Belarus Free Theatre are doing just that, and encouraging us all to take on that obligation with them—reminding us to return from the theater to the world with Pinter’s fierce determination to see truth, and speak it.
reviewed by Aimee Todoroff
It’s hard to imagine that anyone going to see a performance by the Belarus Free Theatre would be unfamiliar with the recent history of the troupe: the political persecution, the arrests, and forced exile that these artists have bravely withstood in order to perform their craft. Their unique situation as theatrical freedom fighters and the real danger they place themselves in gives each performance by the Belarus Free Theatre an urgency that most political theatre cannot claim. Before we even arrive at the theatre, we are told that Discover Love is the true story of a woman whose husband was kidnapped and killed for political reasons, and it is partly because the audience’s expectation is so front-loaded (we know we will see a tragedy, and one that some of the performers have experienced first hand) that the gentle approach taken with Discover Love is so effective and appreciated.
The set is open, with only a large screen and a square taped to the floor used to define the acting space. These echo each other as well as the architecture of the theatre, creating a nice harmony, and the few multipurpose set pieces are used well. Color is brought into the performance with bright costumes and a series of fabrics laid out on the sometimes couch, sometimes bed. The pattern is then picked up and projected onto the large screen, not only delineating place and time, but mood and sensibility. The text is spoken in Russian and Belarusian with English subtitles projected above the action. As with all subtitled performances, it is sometimes difficult to juggle both reading the text and watching the actors without feeling like you are missing some of the subtlety of either, but the story is worth the effort.
Marina Yurevich portrays Irina Krasovskaya with clarity, joy, and passion. She drives the performance as she narrates the story of Irina’s life from childhood to present day, handling an immense amount of text while staying deeply rooted to the emotional life of the character. Though the English-speaking audience couldn’t follow her every word, her honest performance lets us follow every beat and her strong physical choices leave no doubt as to what the character is feeling. The cast is rounded out by the charming Oleg Sidorchik and Pavel Gorodnitski, both playing a variety of characters and providing a haunting live soundtrack. All three are strong physical performers, allowing them to leap over the language barrier and create scenes that crackle with tension.
Director Nikolai Khalezin makes smart choices with pacing this production, taking his time to linger on the unspoken moments in a way that is deeply effective. When Irina and Anatoly first fall in love, we see the scope of their relationship represented in a dance, and it is lovely to be given the chance to see variety in each pass. The careful pacing bolsters the somewhat counter-intuitive structure of the production, which layers one small story on another on another building up to the entirety of Irina’s life, which is then, in the conclusion, expanded to encompass the Belarusian people in a solemn, beautifully staged prayer.
The additional narration, done in English, at the beginning and end of the performance, giving factual information about the practice of “Enforced Disappearance” worldwide, adds yet another layer, shifting the focus of the play outward even further. We see images of people affected by brutal regimes across the globe: parents, children, spouses, and siblings hold up photographs of their loved ones who have disappeared or have been taken.
On their own, these images would be almost impossible to process—the loss is overwhelming. But in Discover Love, Belarus Free Theatre isn’t telling an overwhelming story. They’re telling the very specific story of one woman’s experience, fully explored so that it becomes relatable, universal, and ultimately lives with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
Zone of Silence
reviewed by Martin Denton
Unlike both Being Harold Pinter and Discovering Love, Zone of Silence is largely not a political piece; nor, for the most part, is it a strongly physical work. It is a three-part exploration of what its title suggests, namely those areas of life that are generally not talked about, at least in the society where these performers have lived and worked. The first two sections, "Childhood Legends" and "Diverse," are similar in structure, consisting almost entirely of monologues, delivered in the first person, detailing the often harrowing experiences of their narrators. There are a few props, used sparingly but effectively—a chalkboard in the first segment, a tiny child's chair, a telephone. But most of the storytelling here is in the text, which is dense and rapid and in Russian or Belarusian. There are English supertitles provided, and I wished that the professionalism that marked the rest of the performance was exhibited in their presentation: they were generally difficult to read, being placed well above the heads of all the actors, in small white letters against a light background. The fact that the lights never particularly shifted down during the performance made the reading less comfortable; and the density of the text—three or four lines to try to take in at a time—made things less comfortable still. As my colleagues have noted above, it was tough to watch the actors and the supertitles at the same time. Because Zone of Silence's first two parts are so anchored in words, I found myself with little choice but to try to stay focused on the supertitles, or else risk getting very lost very quickly.
The stories themselves are certainly interesting and worth telling. We meet a black Belarusian gay man who is the victim of prejudice and a guitar player whose hands were amputated. We hear tales of young people growing up amidst dreadful poverty and abuse. And, giving the piece balance, we meet a pair of women representing the established order, one a stern chauvinistic schoolteacher, the other an older woman who mourns the passing of the good old days under Lenin and Stalin.
Zone of Silence is performed by five actors—Pavel Gorodnitski, Yana Rusakevich, Oleg Sidorchik, Denis Tarasenko, and Marina Yurevich. They're clearly skillful, talented people. But their political passion and their artistic innovation are not much displayed in this piece, which resembles work that Americans have seen many times before, from the documentary plays of Anna Deavere Smith or The Civilians to urgent "issue" plays by The Exonerated.
The third part of Zone of Silence, which follows a much-needed intermission (the first two parts are performed without interruption, and run about 105 minutes), revisits the territory of Pinter and Love. In it, the five actors use non-verbal language to depict various facts about their homeland, sometimes playfully, sometimes ironically; after each "movement," the relevant statistics or facts are projected on the wall behind them (lower down and in bigger print than in the first two parts, I might add!). Ultimately, this section, "Numbers," paints a bleak and disturbing picture of a society in decay; the resonance for American viewers is a little eerie, as some similarities between the country the Belarus Free Theatre's members have been forced to flee and the country they are now performing in come to light. (For example: Belarus is the only country in Europe where the death penalty is legal.)
I am glad to have had a chance to experience the work of Belarus Free Theatre, but having read the reviews above I think I would have preferred seeing either Being Harold Pinter or Discovering Love to Zone of Silence. This piece is for the diehards (and of course for those who speak Russian or Belarusian, of whom many were in attendance at the performance I saw).