Thursday, January 24, 2013

Eastern European Perspectives: Minsk 2011 and Opus No. 7

This past weekend, I scheduled a double feature of Eastern European perspectives through theater.  First was the Belarus Free Theatre's production of Minsk 2011: A Letter to Kathy Acker playing at the Under the Radar Festival at The Public Theater.  Second, was Opus No. 7 by Dmitry Krymov 's Lab at the Moscow Theatre School of ­Dramatic Art playing at St. Ann's Warehouse.  

The Belarus Free Theatre's production of Minsk 2011:A Letter to Kathy Acker may be overtly political but it succeeds because it is very good theater.  The piece is beautiful and at times harrowing. Even when the subtitles broke down in the middle of the show I saw, I noticed the audience simply leaned in, made eye contact with the actors and kept watching. Nothing broke the power of the images and the voices asking for recognition of their fight.

From scenes of sexual violence and political repression to quiet paeans on what Minsk means to them, this troupe (some members live in exile in England) tells the story of a country they love but a country where acts of theater can be a political crime.  The brisk 90 minute show is largely vignettes on characters and situations representative of how life is lived in Belarus. The power of the work comes from the satirical representations of political oppression through dynamic imagery and creative theatrical devices.

In the opening scene of Minsk 2011 flying the rainbow flag, playing a flute and merely looking at your watch cause people to be tackled and carried off by the police and all trace evidence of revolt swept away.  Opening your mouth and speaking carries with it real palpable risk. A risk this company takes every day.  You cannot separate who this troupe is from the result of their work.  It's not just about what they are saying. Their mere existence is part of the resistance and revolt. Which is not to say that their theatrical skills are irrelevant. What's compelling here is that their performance, imagery, and style was just as strong as their message.

I found myself drawn into a scene about domestic terrorism.  Emotionally gripping and elegant, the cast using movement and three bags of sugar say a great deal about the return to "normal" after a terrorist attack.  This is certainly a theater troupe worth seeking out when they are in town. 

The level of rage and frustration was a lot more palpable in the work of the Belarus Free Theatre than in the Moscow Theatre School of ­Dramatic Art.   Dmitry Krymov's theater troupe leaves a strong visual impression but with a longer lens on history the storytelling is more reserved and the satire takes a more humorous angle at times.  As a director who started out in set design you can appreciate Krymov's interest in using a large scale, unusual space and unexpected set devices.  This troupe used music, clowning, and puppetry in the two act work. Unexpectedly, it contained everything from haunting holocaust images to, uhm, dick jokes.

The first act was about the history of Jesus and Jews.  Staged in a stretched horizontal space performers are literally cut from the backdrop and the narrative of a history of a people explodes like the big bang.  White cardboard, buckets of black paint, video projections, and piles of shoes, silverware and eyeglasses all make for an intriguing and unexpected expression of family history and the history of how some tried to destroy a people.

The second act was about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Staged in the round, a giant Mother Russia puppet controls Shostakovich driving him to play the piano.  She hounds and chases him with a gun, killing others around him in his circle. She clutches him to her breast  until she destroys him. Overlaid on this nightmarish puppet show gone horribly awry are recordings of him addressing the Russian nation. 

Krymov's use of physical clowning was a good reminder that humor can sometimes be the best way to communicate tragedy. 

In both cases, these are theater companies who use strong and unusual visuals to communicate challenging topics with great skill.

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