In a dark April, Belarus Free Theatre has returned to La MaMa (they were last here in January as Ellen Stewart was dying).  The troupe is everything she had wanted for her stage: illustrative and imaginative, their sacred theatre so powerful, in fact, that it may be easier, if not more efficient, to look between the supertitles and the staging, rather than directly into the burning eyes of the actors. The performers, young and unpretentious, can do nothing to escape their living message—their story does need to be told, and they are the ones who must enact it.  Belarus Free Theatre is in exile, homeless; they come from Europe’s last dictatorship; their lives and loved ones really have been threatened, if not worse–the state of Belarus, additionally, is in the very real business of torture, extracting funding from the European Union (the plays will also, unfortunately, tell you more about the horror of the country’s tragic past regarding World War II, Stalin, and Chernobyl, but, even worse, they’re not limited to them).  

The work—the three plays are a co-production between La MaMa and the Public Theater–is disciplined. The movement is choreographed rather than blocked—watch the frustration with which one young woman bats blue plastic or flashes gravy (or blood?) on her hand in Being Harold Pinter; brief nudity, in the same show, essential to the banal and horrific context, is staged about as successfully–and without shock value–as any you’ll ever see; yet the smashing of a piece of fruit may be one of the more brutal images you’ll witness this spring.  This play, based on Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize speech, was, in a leap of genius, conceived by Belarus Free Theatre director Vladimir Shcherban (after it was suggested that the group look at the famous playwright’s works, by another famous playwright, Tom Stoppard). Actually, only the beginning of the speech is used (so are scenes from several Pinter plays and letters from Belarus political prisoners).  If it hasn’t become so already, Being Harold Pinter will probably be the group’s signature piece, although, at the performances I saw, the other shows received larger ovations (the title refers to the fact, I believe, that the actors and those in their homeland are actually living in the terrorized worlds Pinter wrote about in Mountain Language, One for the Road, The Homecoming, Old Times, Ashes to Ashes, and The New World Order).  Ironically, two of the nations who are giving refuge to Belarus Free Theatre, are excoriated in Pinter’s same lecture (it’s called “Art, Truth, and Politics”).  Pinter called U.S. foreign policy—and that of its lap dog Great Britain—a “tapestry of lies,” and a tapestry is actually a good word for describing the composition of the Belarus works. Even if you believe the Nobelist is right, however, you’ll be glad we’re giving free voice to such urgent concerns.

Those who have read about the company know that they’ve been performing in apartments and in the forest in their native country under the radar of established power—and certainly without much money.  This has necessitated limited use of sets—here, the space is a black box with taped lines, props where needed, and projections. It has also made their theatre very physical; music and musicality are also essential to their approach (Discover Love uses a seemingly continuous soundtrack, or musical fusion, with songs from Russian Communism’s “Love is Cuba” to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”—movement, dance, spatial relationships are more important than realism, rooms, and linearity. And what they can do with blankets! (The Belarus Free Theatre directors are Vladimir Shcherban and Nikolai Khalezin. Natalia Koliada co-wrote the text for Discover Love and acts as the troupe’s producer.) From Grand Duchess Anastasia to those who have “disappeared” today, the play—as well as the others—uses storytelling with action played alongside it to give the subject of people, who are suddenly discovered missing, focus. The performers can talk directly to the audience, as well, and, in all the shows, there is a fluidity that I have not seen since Bergman’s Hamlet in 1986, where Ophelia was allowed to witness, and follow, the latter parts of the tragedy. Not since Bergman, also, might you have been able to feel such a strong musical tempo regarding the pacing of plays. Discover Love provides a strong woman’s story, less metaphorical or literary than Being Harold Pinter. It points to a discomfiting reality as described by Irina Bogdanova, a Belarussian currently in England, to writer Carole Cadwalladr in the April 4 Guardian about political activism, “ ‘I don’t want to fight.  I don’t want to be here doing this.  But someone has to.  And all the men are in jail.’ It’s the wives, and mothers and sisters and daughters, who’ve been left to do the dirty work.” 

The third title of the series, Zone of Silence, is more contextual, more local than the other two plays, discussing growing up in Belarus: school, a suicide attempt in an unhappy love, the relationship of a daughter and her father (who is imprisoned twice), and a separated adopted family. The second part looks at being gay in such a society, being homeless, handicapped, and a woman who is still in love with Lenin. The final section offers the harrowing statistics regarding everyday life in the country.  Even if you agree with the Guardian and find it takes a while to “process” such information, especially given that the actors are speaking in Russian and Belarussian–and that this segment is seemingly more descriptive, as I did–the performances are excellent (the supertitles, normally fine throughout the evenings, also hit a glitch during the first half of the preview performance I saw of this play–they were too light to read easily, but were, thereafter, corrected). 

The names of the fine actors in Belarus Free Theatre, during these performances, are: Nikolai Khalezin, Pavel Gorodnitski, Yana Rusakevich, Oleg Sidorchik, Irina Yaroshevich, Denis Tarasenko, Marina Yurevich.

You’re going to remember them and their deep morality. My feeling is that New York is one place where they will always be welcome—where a tiny troupe from a place nobody heard of, much less knew where it was on a map–showed the world drama’s galvanizing force and life-fueling power. The return of Belarus Free Theatre is a must-see event. 

© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.          


Belarus Free Theatre in Repertory

By Belarus Free Theatre

April 13 – May 15, 2011


– Ben Brantley, THE NEW YORK TIMES

After its triumphant run during the Under the Rader Festival, La MaMa and The Public Theatre present the Belarus Free Theatre. Established in response to repression in “Europe’s last dictatorship,” the award-winning Belarusian Company—now outlawed at home—stages three productions in repertory.

Tickets are on sale now!

BEING HAROLD PINTER – Purchase Tickets Online

A poignant contemporary commentary on violence, oppression, freedom and human dignity.

ZONE OF SILENCE – Purchase Tickets Online

Belarusian taboos are explored in three chapters, Childhood Legends, Diverse, and Numbers.

DISCOVER LOVE – Purchase Tickets Online

A gripping original drama based on the true story of dissident Irina Krasovskaya and her husband Anatoly, who was “disappeared” 10 years ago.

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