Pussy Riot Theatre: Revolution | The Crocodile, Seattle, WA, USA – Mar. 8, 2017

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my expectations were high. I was traveling when I found out that Pussy Riot would be in Seattle on March 8 (International Women’s Day, at that!), and I immediately booked tickets without knowing what the show would entail. A year prior, I had seen Maria (Masha) Alyokhina participate in a discussion along with producer Alexander Cheparukhin and another member of Pussy Riot, Ksenia, who collaborated on their human rights and prisoners’ rights projects, Mediazona and Zona Prava. A documentary about Pussy Riot was screened for the audience, questions were answered, and though this was not a “show,” per se, it had been highly interesting.

Well, what I saw on Wednesday was a show, and it was a SHOW. This was the premiere, but it seemed flawless. Pussy Riot Theatre is absolutely not to be missed.

The afternoon began in a hectic manner. It had been announced that Pussy Riot would be attending the Women’s Rally in Seattle’s Westlake Park. The news was accompanied by a photo of Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova – a bit confusing because Pussy Riot Theatre is a project of fellow member, Masha. At the rally, we heard from a few local activists and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King before Masha took the stage. She spoke briefly, “because of [her] English,” but she had a strong impact on the audience with her statement “community is stronger than any government.” Then, her fellow Pussy Riot Theatre performer said hi and told us to come see them at the Crocodile later that night. In what I deduce was a comical trolling attempt, she introduced herself as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, despite not being Nadya. Nobody seemed to notice, and indeed, photos popped up in various media outlets captioning her photo as such, so the trolling was successful. When I approached Masha and this woman (I will call her N, since I am not sure she wants to be named, but she is a member of the musical duo Asian Women on the Telephone, or AWOTT), after they departed the stage, Masha was bent over laughing. I can’t help but laugh at this joke myself; it’s a pity that many people use Pussy Riot’s image to further their own without paying any attention to the remarkable individuals behind the witty, creative, and strong effort.

Masha Speaking at Seattle Women's Day Rally

After a very brief hi to Masha and N, I ran off to the Crocodile to make sure I had a good spot for the show itself. The venue was quite crowded, but I managed to stake out a place front and center and had a good time chatting with another woman in the crowd as we listened to a DJ for an hour or so. Then, local act Pink Parts came on and rallied the audience up with their fierce punk performance. They were announced by a friend who elaborated on why we must resist Trump’s sick agenda and then the band went wild on stage, joined by the crowd who jumped into the wave of passion Pink Parts set off.

Pink Parts

The transition from Pink Parts’ set to Pussy Riot Theatre: Revolution was a fairly quick one. The set up for the show was three microphones across the stage, a DJ setup on stage right, and a screen as a backdrop. The show’s dialogue is in Russian, so the backdrop hosted an English translation as well as imagery from Pussy Riot’s protests (centered around their Punk Prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior) and trial.

Pussy Riot Theatre Intro

The show began with a beat controlled by M (of AWOTT) at the DJ kit and N playing a pulsing loop on the saxophone, while Masha and Kiryl (of Belarus Free Theatre) walked through the audience from the back of the room and then climbed on stage. From the start, the crowd was simultaneously hypnotized and energized by the music, and then Masha began speaking over it with words flashing on the screen behind her. Periodically the crowd would just scream in a combination of rage, power, and excitement.

Pussy Riot Theatre

Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away

Revolution began with a description of Putin’s decision to swap places with Medvedev, taking his third term as president, and the simultaneous, deepening entwinement of the Orthodox Church with the Russian State. Pussy Riot prepared their protest, and practiced their punk prayer in an old factory space. The suspense builds, despite knowing the protest’s outcome, as the women gain entry into the church and climb onto the altar. “Why are we running? Where are we running?” Masha asks as they flee the scene after their “40 seconds of banal hooliganism”. The group members then find themselves in hiding and rules of evasion are dictated to the audience: don’t use internet at home, change your appearance, destroy your SIM card. And yet, three of the women, Masha, Nadya, and Katya, are ultimately captured and are placed in detention, awaiting trial.

Pussy Riot Theatre - The Trial

The next chapter of Revolution becomes more frightening, dark, and defiant. Masha describes the isolation, the harsh light, the early mornings, and feeling faint as the trial proceeded. And yet, she asks questions that cut at the absurdity of this show trial. We already know the outcome. The women were sentenced, and further removed from society. Masha reminds us: when a prisoner transport vehicle drives by, there might be prisoners inside staring back at you.

The music shifts, and Masha dons a dark hood. The mood is solemn. Words flash on the screen about the transport and her induction into prison: “I am a body / superfluous”, “frozen tears”. Masha gets in trouble for sleeping. Other prisoners are forbidden to speak with her. They are forced to work long hours, sewing. It is cold, the snow in Perm is deep. Masha goes on a hunger strike and her blood pressure drops, 80, 70… But, she wins the first case against the system when she brings a suit forward. Though still in prison, she has started making inroads into her work on prisoners’ rights, which she and Nadya embraced upon their release.

Pussy Riot In Prison

At times, Masha paces the stage smoking. At others, she sits on the lip of the stage, legs over the edge. Kiryl dances around, firmly in front of the audience. At one point, he douses himself, and then us, with cold water. N, Kiryl, and Masha exchange rapid-fire questions and answers, coordinating movements. The show ends with someone exclaiming to Masha upon her release that she is free, and her answer was, “are you?” What is freedom in an unfree society? How do internal and external freedom interact with each other? These questions almost brought me to tears as the actors happily waved and exited the stage.

Alexander Cheparukhin quickly came out to thank the audience and explain that the show is based on Masha’s upcoming book, due to be released in July by Metropolitan Books. He also gave a nod to Victoria Lomasko’s graphic reportage, “Other Russias”, which includes art and description of the Pussy Riot trial and other Russian protests. The book was being sold at the merchandise booth (and is highly recommended!).

It feels odd to try to encompass the show with a description, much less get at the heart of what it meant, because it was wholly unique and because Masha’s words cut at the root of her own experiences and perceptions more than mine ever will. But, I can comfortably state that this was one of the most invigorating pieces of art I have seen, and now, as I write this four days later, I’m still thinking about the questions and answers it posed. See this show. I would see it again, if I could.

The lights came on and people began departing the venue, but I stuck around a bit and ended up chatting with M and N of AWOTT for a few minutes, talking about their tour, how they liked Seattle, why and how I speak Russian, and Lake Baikal. One could say it is a contrast that such nice people can be so aggressively defiant, but I would argue otherwise. The resistance stems from a compassion, and a knowledge of what is right.

I came away with a complex feeling of ferocity and sadness, along with inspiration to continue my own activism. Pussy Riot Theatre: Revolution reminded us this: Anyone can be Pussy Riot. The time for a revolution is now. You can be in prison, and you can also be free.

Leah

Leah

Leah tries to be a functioning adult but, eh, that's not really her goal in life. Instead she cultivates her areas of expertise: traveling randomly, cultivating progressive moral outrage, obsessing over Finland, obsessing over other locales, stepping into alternate book universes, and dancing so hard when it all becomes too much.
Leah