“It’s almost as much a political event as an artistic one,” Al Jirikowic (my companion at Thursday night’s performance of Burning Doors from Belarus Free Theatre) said to me. He also said, “This place should be filled.” The crowd was large, but seats were empty.
The show will be performed only one more time (Friday at 8pm) during its brief stay in town. It’s being presented at the Kay Theatre, part of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the campus of University of Maryland, College Park, as part of its Visiting Artist Series.
Belarus Free Theatre has been in the headlines a lot over the last several years, as its work has been banned in its home country, and the troupe’s leaders have been forced underground.
at Clarice Center for Performing Arts
Friday, Oct 27 at 8pm
Details and tickets
Their work has been enthusiastically embraced in exile, and, if you see Burning Doors during its short run here (and you really, really should see it, if you have any chance to at all), you will fully understand why. Wow, what an experience.
And I say that not only because of the power of the political aspect of the performance, but also because of the potency of the artistic achievement.
Burning Doors is sort of a compilation piece. It includes excerpts from the works of the iconic Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as well as the influential French philosopher Michel Foucault.
These are interspersed among descriptions (including much first-person witnessing) of the experiences of artists who have been imprisoned and tortured by the repressive Russian regime of Vladimir Putin.
Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker currently serving a 20-year sentence for supposed terrorist crimes. Petr Pavlensky is a Russian artist now exiled in Paris after punishment for political/artistic activism that challenged the Putin regime. (It was one of Pavlensky’s actions — burning the door of the Russian secret police — that gives the piece its title and its central metaphor.)
Most readers will recall the imprisonment of the group Pussy Riot after a punk performance at a church. Its member Maria Alyokhina not only provided testimony for the text, but also collaborated with the company and appears in the performance.
What’s so involving and so sophisticated is how the company (all of the actors are credited as “devisers” and “co-creators”) ties all of the disparate elements together so that themes and motifs echo from one sequence to another, from 19th Century through 21st Century sources.
Natalia Kaliada of Belarus Free Theatre extorts American theatremakers:
“This country gave so much to the world, underground music, unique political art. Get back to it.”
The first sequences, based on Alyokhina’s experiences, introduce a few of those motifs. Over the evening, for instance, we will repeatedly see people stripped, harnessed, and raised into the air.
One of the insights (for me) was the dichotomy of prisoners’ perceptions of space and time: space for them is constrained to a cell of only a few square feet, while time feels endless (and empty) to the imprisoned.
That’s smartly contrasted to the story from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, about a man sentenced to die who is given a last-minute reprieve. The monologue tells of how what he believes will be his final five minutes feels endless, and leads him to a startling conclusion.
Fascinatingly, the eight actors move back and forth between roles as victim and as tormentor, sometimes within one sequence.
There’s a compelling interrogation circle (for lack of a better phrase), wherein the four women alternate roles during an escalating cycle of cross-examinations.
During a stunning acrobatic sequence to the transcript of Pavlensky’s exchange with an interrogator, two actors alternate speaking Pavlensky’s words, two the interrogator’s — but all four are barefoot and bare-chested, suggesting a similar interchangeability. (During a post-show discussion, it was revealed that the interrogator in the transcript later left government work and is now a human rights lawyer.)
A later sequence (which a surtitle tells us is based on the prison experiences of Sentsov) also involves mutable power relationships.
Actors also play Putin apparatchiks, who interrupt their self-involved discussions about extravagant living and soccer games with worries about how to handle the high-profile cases that have attracted the attention of Western media and (perhaps more vitally) Western pop stars.
(As the yes-men commiserate about how the President will react to this pressure, and about how capriciously sentences can be commuted by him, one couldn’t help but think about how that sort of executive impulsiveness no longer sounds like the quality only of an oligarchy, as against a democracy.)
Another recurring theme is how the purpose of repression is to alter the impulse to resist authoritarianism once the offender has been released. The goal of incarceration and torture is to ingrain submissiveness; eventually “free,” the prisoner’s impulse will be to follow rules and not to question authority. It’s one of the incongruities that the piece examines: the effectiveness of oppression is contrasted against the persistence of the impulse to fight oppression.
The three contemporary figures all have children, and a further motif provokes us to consider the particular sacrifice of those whose resistance bears a cost not only to themselves, but also to those closest to them.
For Alyokhina in particular, this includes not only criticism for not racing to her child upon release, but, relatedly, answered press questions about whether she would put herself and her child through this grueling ordeal for some sort of publicity advantage. The altruism that informs the impulse to risk so much in order to fight a repressive order, and the sacrifice it entails, is palpable through this piece, and renders such a question absurd.
It also makes the thematic point that systems of oppression depend on the “cowardice” of those being subjugated, and resistance depends not just on the extraordinarily heroic, but on ordinary people who have families and the same personal obligations and fears that most of us have.
“Learn to overcome your fear,” we are extolled at evening’s end, as the doors to the three prison cells that make up the set’s back wall are set ablaze.
Artists live in a different system, the apparatchiks complain, and there’s an echo of how Kafka and Orwell and Stoppard have chronicled the manner in which artists can puncture the tools that demagogues and authoritarians use to encourage complacency and to exert control.
In a post-show talk, Natalia Kaliada, one of the directors, spoke about how the company creates lists of societal or political taboos and then considers how it can thwart them.
I’m all for nudity in theatre, and I loved the manner in which it is employed here. It becomes, variously, a metaphor for the intrusion of the state into the life of the individual, a demonstration of the fearlessness of these actors, and, also, an exploration of a taboo.
In one sequence (the bit from The Idiot), the actor, who had emerged from a tub and then had dropped the towel with which he had covered himself, begins to dress. He starts with socks, then shirt, then suit jacket — the genitals, usually what is first covered, last exposed, were last covered, most exposed, in a cool scuttling of the taboo against exposure.
Later, that same actor (aside from Alyokhina, there is no way from the program to distinguish which listed actor is doing which role) is hoist upside down. This is the moment that was described among the audience warnings: “this production includes non-simulated urination.” I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen that before. If that’s on your taboo bucket list, now’s your chance.
Those lucky enough to witness this work will not only see the most potently political piece of theatre we are likely to find on a local stage; they will also be stunned by the remarkable work of this cast.
To say that the performance is extremely physical is an understatement. It requires such precision, such stamina, the demonstration of such strength (in the air as well as on the ground) that, more than once, I thought that, required of the performers in addition to their acting skills, are not dance skills so much as circus skills.
Seriously, watching some of these sequences, you won’t believe your eyes, you will leave with the same wild admiration for this cast and this company as I did, and you won’t forget this evening anytime soon.
My reactions throughout were provocative and varied: feeling privileged to live away from the repressiveness that these artists endure; feeling as if (particularly in this charged time) it should be viewed here as importantly cautionary, and not with complacency; and, despite the depressing realities to which it bears witness, feeling in awe of how engaging and entertaining the piece is.
The two hours fly by, and the artistic prowess of these theatre-makers always ensures that it never feels like “eat your spinach” or “important” work that is a slog to sit through.
I can’t recommend Burning Doors with enthusiasm sufficient to what this work deserves.
Do not miss it.
Burning Doors, Devised and Performed by Belarus Free Theatre. Written by Nicolai Khalezin. Directed by and Dramaturgy by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. Original testimony by Guest Performer Maria Alyokhina. Performers, Devisers & Co-Creators: Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau, Maryna Yurevich. Choreographic & Rehearsal Director: Bridget Fiske. Additional Choreography: Maryia Sazonava. Stage Design: Nicolai Khalezin. Lighting & Video Design: Joshua Pharo. Sound Design: Richard Hammarton. Stage Manager: Svelana Sugako. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.