Belarus Free Theatre
The intrepid troupe performs a repertory of artistically daring and politically minded compositions.
The centerpiece of the repertory at La MaMa is Being Harold Pinter, an imaginative and often thrilling use of texts by the titular Nobel Prize-winning playwright. Adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, the performance (like all of the company's works) is presented in Russian and Belarusian, although English titles are projected on a screen above the action.
Oleg Sidorchik is the first and primary company member to take on the persona of Pinter. He has a commanding presence, and in his initial appearance, he spray paints his forehead red so that it looks as if he's bleeding as another actor puts a bandage over Sidorchik's right eye. The sequence is riveting, and followed by a more casual address by the performer as Pinter that is charming in its stark contrast. Utilizing snippets from Pinter's Nobel Prize lecture, he speaks directly to the audience, commenting on some of the playwright's works, such as The Homecoming and Ashes to Ashes.
Interspersed between these remarks are actual scenes from the plays, performed in a bare-bones, somewhat stylized fashion. The excerpts all focus on confrontation, which gradually starts to sound much more like interrogation. The arc of the production also moves from the domestic sphere, starting with a father-son altercation, and into scenarios in which state sanctioned violence is an everyday reality.
The most harrowing portion of the evening is a mash-up of Pinter's New World Order and One for the Road, as a pair of guards (Nikolai Khalezin, Denis Tarasenka) taunt and ultimately torture their prisoner, played with committed intensity by Pavel Gorodnitski.
The troupe cleverly mines the subtext and tension embedded in Pinter's plays, while simultaneously creating a mise-en-scéne that seems like a direct comment on the political realities within Belarus. This is made even more blatant by the incorporation of letters from Belarusian political prisoners into the performance. It's a potent political statement that is also a theatrically powerful one.
The piece is divided into three parts, with one intermission. The first is labeled "Childhood Legends" and consists of personal stories by the actors, with a physical object serving to anchor each tale. For instance, Rusakevich shows the audience a child's nightgown and talks of how it was one of her own, recently rediscovered by her daughter. The garment holds a painful memory for the performer, involving a childhood humiliation when it was torn off of her and she was made to stand naked for two hours in front of a group of boys as punishment for acting up in kindergarten.
The majority of the actors come together at the end of this section for a non-autobiographical -- but still true tale -- of a 10-year-old Belarusian who has been victimized by the country's current political system, and kept from being adopted by the Italian family she has come to know and love. Since much of what the performers say is based upon news reports, they carry around newspapers, which they then roll up or flatten out to collectively create a mobile puppet version of the girl, who comes "alive" in their more-than-capable hands.
The second section of Zone of Silence, labeled "Diverse," is based on the performers' interviews with men and women on the fringes of Belarusian society, told as first-person narratives. Tarasenka spins a fascinating tale of a record producer with a shady past and no hands, as they were lost to frostbite. In his performance of the story, the actor keeps his hands behind his head, utilizing only his arms and elbows for stage business, such as plugging a guitar into an amplifier.
Gorodnitski performs the tale of a black gay Belarusian man, but while the story itself is compelling, the ethnically white actor's use of a black mask to signify race is problematic as it (perhaps unintentionally) invokes a history of minstrelsy. Similarly, the tales of an elderly woman with a love of Lenin and a homeless man with a passion for dancing have a somewhat condescending tone that makes this middle section of Zone of Silence the least successful.
Following the intermission, however, things pick up with the truly delightful "Numbers." This section emphasizes physical comedy and other non-verbal expressions, which is sure to come as a bit of a relief to audience members who are (like myself) completely reliant upon reading the projected surtitles to understand the words the actors are speaking.
Here, statistics -- including information about sexual slavery, mental illness, suicides, unemployment, and the lingering effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster -- are brought wittily to life. But then, as the numerical data corresponding to what's been performed is projected onto the back wall, the cold hard facts prove sobering.
We hear the majority of the tale from the perspective of the wife, nicknamed Ira and sensitively played by Marina Yurevich. Ira talks of her childhood memories of her grandmother, her first love, trips to the circus, listening to the radio, and other subjects that clearly establish her as a person who exists fully in her own right, and is not simply defined by the tragedy that befell her husband.
Eventually, the tale turns to Tolya, portrayed by Oleg Sidorchik (who also takes on a number of other speaking roles in Ira's story). The two first met when Tolya was her physics teacher, but their romance did not begin until after she finished school. We hear a little of their courtship, their rather abrupt marriage, their financial struggles, and eventual business success. There is an unabashed sentimentality to the tale, although it does also touch upon the couple's domestic problems -- including a time when their marriage was threatened by a man who nearly lured Ira away from Tolya.
Although much of the story is told through direct address to the audience, Khalezin has engagingly staged the piece, which also includes company member Pavel Gorodnitski as both musician and supplementary player. There are also a few dance sequences, choreographed by Olga Skvortsova, the most beautiful of which is an energetic ballroom dance sequence between Yurevich and Sidorchick.