Autumn has descended upon Seattle and the comforting morning chill lingers slightly through the day. The trees are turning colors. The Caribbean and Texas have been bashed by unusually strong hurricanes. North Korea and American “leadership” trade insults. Trump has surmounted his eighth month as president. And Belarus Free Theatre, joined by Maria (Masha) Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, comes to town.
What is Belarus Free Theatre? For Americans horrified by Trump and what he represents, they offer up an embodiment that things can be – and in parts of the world are – inexcusably and tragically worse. Belarus, for those who don’t know, is home to the oldest dictatorship in Europe. Lukashenko, the president/strong man/tormentor of the country, has been in power for 23 years. Opposition is not tolerated. As such, Belarus Free Theatre operates in secrecy. When they have performances, the location is only revealed day-of to attendees. Many of its members have been imprisoned and tortured. They have made a choice, and they have put themselves in danger, because they chose their political art. To perform in Seattle, they had to make complex travel arrangements to leave the country without arousing suspicion. The group is based in London more openly.
For their show Burning Doors, Belarus Free Theatre is joined by Pussy Riot’s Masha. Burning Doors tells the stories of the imprisonment of Masha, actionist Petr Pavlensky, and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. As such, Burning Doors is a disturbing show – and how could it not be, for isn’t prison, Russian prison, political imprisonment, disturbing?
Belarus Free Theatre, as one might guess, isn’t exactly interested in art only for art’s sake. “Working across borders [they] create, campaign, and educate.” Indeed, Burning Doors is intended to raise awareness of the plight of Oleg Senstov, who is on year three of a 20-year prison sentence in Russia. He was imprisoned ostensibly for “terrorism” in recently-occupied Crimea, but in reality it was to make an example of him, and the three others who were also arrested. In August, Masha and fellow Pussy Riot member Olga Borisova were detained in the far northeast Russian city of Yakutsk, where Oleg was held in a penal colony, for protesting in his defense. Of the three individuals whose stories are told in Burning Doors, Oleg is the one who remains imprisoned.
I went with a friend to see Burning Doors at On the Boards on opening night. I knew a little of what to expect, but the intimacy of the theatre surmounted any mental preparation I had done. The show is raw. The actors use their bodies as disturbing instruments, and indeed, their bodies are disturbed, to represent the physical degradation that occurs in prison. In the first scene of the show, a naked woman repetitively squats as Masha explains the searches she had to undergo while imprisoned in Moscow, awaiting trial. Imagine: Masha herself, on stage a few feet from you, detailing real violations that happened to her, as their shadow is represented in front of you.
The actors throw themselves at each other. They are strung up and swung around. Masha is plunged underwater in a bathtub for distressing amounts of time. Actors slap each other. But it isn’t all physical. There is a scene during the telling of Masha’s story where actors run around, screaming at each other, at once enacting conflict from childhood up until Masha’s release from prison. The psychological impact is far from absent.
In between scenes detailing Masha’s, Petr’s, and Oleg’s stories are scenes in which chinovniki, government bureaucrats, alternate between discussing these cases and, you know, their yachts. One such conversation takes place on the toilet. These scenes provide an absurd, yet dark, levity. There are also scenes in which actors recite poetry, or sing folk songs. Amid the represented tortures, I found these some of the most touching moments.
The play also takes passages from Dostoevsky, namely from The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, to great effect. Foucault is also quoted. And so is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, by way of the reenactment of Oleg Sentsov’s closing speech in court, in which he agrees with Pontius Pilate that cowardice is the greatest sin, and that betrayal is a form of cowardice. All of these references fall perfectly into place in the context of the show.
In the middle of the play, there is a break in which the audience is offered the opportunity to ask questions of Masha. Clearly, everyone at the two shows I attended was a bit shocked and had to scramble to gather their thoughts to form a question. As is her style, Masha’s answers were cutting and to the point, though at the second show I saw, the actor on stage with her interjected a bit more, when it wasn’t totally clear the meaning was conveyed or understood in English.
I was left rather numb after the opening night show, having not been able to completely digest what was happening in the moment of the play. The final scene is one of the most, if not the very most, disturbing in my view, so the contrast with the lights coming on and the actors running on and off stage for the encore bows overwhelmed total comprehension in the moment. However, after I attended the closing night show, I found my teeth chattering as I clapped. It had sunk in more. It is still difficult, a few days later, not to think about what I saw.
The actors are incredibly talented and passionate, though the passionate bit should go without saying given the risks they have accepted to participate in Belarus Free Theatre. And even though for non-fluent Russian speakers, it is a bit hectic to shift one’s eyes from the translation on the backdrop screen to the action on the stage, the meaning of the show is not at all obscured by the language gap. In fact, the latter third of the play is almost entirely physical, which I believe is a testament to the actors as they create a vivid and unsettling scene largely without the help of words.
In addition to seeing two performances of Burning Doors, I also attended a book reading, discussion, and signing by Masha at Elliot Bay Book Company. Masha was there to promote her new book, Riot Days, which I highly recommend. It intimately describes the preparation for Pussy Riot’s action in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the arrest, trial, and of course, Masha’s prison experience. What I was most impressed by was Masha’s refusal to succumb to rote obeyance of the rules, as difficult as life was made for her. And as a result, she brought the penal colony to trial and – a first! – won. After her release from prison, along with fellow Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova (who was also imprisoned), they started Zona Prava and MediaZona, to push for prisoners’ rights and provide them with legal assistance and to spread news about them.
At the bookstore, Masha read short excerpts from Riot Days, but most of the time was spent in discussion with On the Boards Executive Director, Betsey Brock, and answering audience questions. Of course, Masha was asked about Russian interference in the U.S. election (she was also asked a similar question on opening night of Burning Doors). Though I personally am sure that Russia did its best to interfere in Trump’s favor, relying heavily on social media as a tool, I also agree with Masha’s response: “indifference is the main kind of evil.” She cited the fact that about half of Americans didn’t vote. Things would likely be very different if people were engaged, and that needs to change.
Masha was also given poll results from when Republicans were asked about topics such as free media. Is it just troublesome? “Freedom is always a trouble!” Masha exclaimed. And, of course, she spoke about political action, about how it is important for activists around the world to connect. She also pointed out that political action, at its root, isn’t about starting a new movement or political party. It is about asking uncomfortable questions.
Would that we all asked, and grappled with, those uncomfortable questions, and would that we all had the bravery that Belarus Free Theatre does to stand up for others.
At the end of the closing night show, co-director Natalia Kaliada, came out to share news of Oleg Sentsov to the audience. After Pussy Riot’s August action, he was transferred away from the Yakutsk penal colony. That seemed like good news, for that colony is particularly harsh. However, they had just received the second letter in three years from Oleg and learned that he was being transferred to a penal colony in the far north, in the Yamalo-Nenets region, which has a reputation of perhaps being even worse. They also learned that the thousands of postcards audience members of Burning Doors sent him weren’t received. So, Natalia said, they were raising money to give to his sister so she could send him food packages. Theatre staff were holding baskets outside the exits for audience members to drop some cash into. Apparently, they raised over $2,500 in two days. Obviously, Belarus Free Theatre’s transnational campaigns produce results.
See Burning Doors, if you can. The next run is at La MaMa in New York City from October 12-22. And no matter where you are, you can support the campaign to #freesenstov.
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