Yesterday's Intractable Woman Has a Message for Today's "Nasty Woman"
Stefano Massini chronicles the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in its US premiere with the Play Company.
Much like the journalist who inspired Intractable Woman, now making its US premiere with the Play Company, Stefano Massini's piece of theatrical reportage never disguises what it is. The play is subtitled A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya and leans far more toward "memo" than "theater," at least in the traditional sense of those two words. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything other than statements of fact in Massini's script — a format that runs counter to the typical subjectivity of dramatic interpretation, but one very much in line with Politkovskaya's passionately dispassionate reporting on the Second Chechen War from the late '90s until her politically motivated murder in 2006. If the facts move you — great. If they don't — well, that's neither Massini nor Politkovskaya's concern.
The overwhelming priority of Intractable Woman is truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — a topic as looming in today's America as the portrait of Vladimir Putin that peers in on Marsha Ginsberg's set, designed like a sterile bureaucratic conference room where tragedies are bleached clean. It may be under unfortunate circumstances, but the 10-year-old play has chosen an ideal time to make its way to the United States — a land where any narrative willing to stand by the formerly unimpeachable claim that "facts are facts" is enough to bring a left-of-center American to tears.
Director Lee Sunday Evans has crafted Massini's flexible piece around three women, all of whom stand firmly through their delivery of some truly gruesome information (in the exacting spirit of the play, Evans creates an angular setting with rows of chairs her actors repeatedly arrange and rearrange). Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub, and Stacey Yen could pass as easily for "nasty" women as "intractable" ones and wear both badges proudly as they deliver testimonials based on Politkovskaya's honest and, more often than not, dangerous reporting. In one, they sardonically describe the challenges to get through a simple day in the Chechen capital of Grozny with limited access to water, electricity, and transportation, not to mention the incessant nighttime bombings. In another, they fight through the fog of a poisoning (a real attempt on Politkovskaya's life in 2004), mining for memories to accurately document (here, lighting designer Masha Tsimring and sound designer Stowe Nelson make the neutral space painfully menacing).
Occasionally the actors assume the identities of Politkovskaya's interviewees: a teenage Russian soldier impelled to kill Chechen civilians for the steady pay (inhabited by Yen with youthful masculine bravado); a doctor at the last remaining hospital in Grozny caring for hundreds of women who have been raped by Russian soldiers and Chechen guerillas alike (Shalhoub, conveying these alarming numbers matter-of-factly); and a frustrated Russian colonel ordered to hold Chechen prisoners in landfills (Malouf with the deadened voice and lazy carriage of a soldier made numb to human suffering), to name a few.
Massini never cloaks Politkovskaya in excessive martyrdom, abstaining from the urge to wax eloquent about the dignity in impartial journalism, and only occasionally making note of the fact that the journalist in question is a woman— undoubtedly a factor in the Russian government's campaign to thwart the power of her pen. But that would be beside the point for a woman whose career was founded on staying out of the story she was telling. As Massini says through one of his Annas, if you're stepping beyond the bounds of reporting, "you're no longer doing your job, you're fighting a war." There's no question a war is raging, but maybe soon we'll see the day when facts are just facts and no longer a battleground.