By Constance Rodgers
Belarus Free Theatre: Burning Doors is an intense theatrical essay on the attempted censorship and oppression of political artists whose works expose governmental injustices and hypocrisies. I say attempted, because thankfully we have brave philosopher/artists, who refuse to be censored, who resist living oppressed. Informed by it’s own experience of political oppression, Belarus Free Theatre created Burning Doors, from the harrowing stories of three artist, political prisoners, who in spite of the states classic and cowardly use of fear, imprisonment and torture continue to resist injustice, and express in full creativity their outrage at hypocrisy. These artist activists are: Maria Alyokhina (of Pussy Riot), also a member of the cast, Petr Pavlensky, a performance artist political activist of Russia, now living in political exile in Paris, and Oleg Sentsov, an Ukrainian filmmaker and civil society activist, sadly, still imprisoned.
Burning Doors does not tell us what Maria, Petr and Oleg protest, we may know their background, but even if we do not it doesn’t matter, because we should all, always be free to criticize our governments. The play, told through vignettes, focuses on the mental, physical and spiritual torture of prison and the various methods used to break one down.
One vignette of mental torture has four women; Maryna Yurevich, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Maryia Sazonava and Maria Alyokhina, placed back to back on cubes. Two stand, these are the inquisitors, speaking questions and accusations; the two defendants remain seated, speaking answers and explanations. After one go around of the scene the roles switch, the dialogue remaining the same. This continues until all women have played all four roles, fever and pitch increasing with each round – until explosion. We have become our own inquisitor.
A vignette of physical torture has a woman, Maryia Sazonava, lifted to the ceiling in a harness, her four limbs splayed, while her story of forced nudity, and body cavity searches is played out. Torture that renders one an animal.
One of the most moving pieces is a vignette of spiritual torture taken from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Kiryl Masheka becomes, with exquisite pain and tenderness, a prisoner on the firing squad scaffold awaiting his death. He knows he has exactly five minutes to live and parcels the minutes out exactly between goodbyes to friends and family, his last looks of the world and one ending minute to look inside himself. Then – his execution is reprieved. How do you recover from this? How do you parcel out the rest of your life with the importance you did those last five minutes?
There are a few vignettes of comic relief where bourgeois officers of the state discuss how to spend their money and when and how they should arrest and release the political artists they disdain. Also, periodically we are reminded that this is a play:
Guard: It’s a performance, not a prison! Do you understand? Theatre! Put the jacket on!
Guard: Put the jacket on!
Prisoner: I’m not putting on a uniform! I don’t want to and I don’t have to. It’s not real!
The comic relief and brief moments that break the illusion allow the audience (maybe the performers too) space to breathe, to exhale/inhale and prepare ourselves for the next onslaught of man’s inhumanity to man – not so much on stage, but in the world.
Burning Doors is intense and profoundly physical alternative theatre. The performers are strong in mind, voice and body. Many of the vignettes involve frightening acrobatics and realistic stage fights. The performers are fully committed at every moment both physically and emotionally. It is an extremely moving and relevant piece of theatre. It is not for the faint of heart and if you startle easily do not sit in the first row. This work is important, very needed and must continue, as all resistance to tyranny, hate and greed must. I did my little piece by donating to the support of Belarus Free Theatre. You can show your support by going to see Burning Doors and experience a visceral and intellectual evening you will not forget.
Presented in Russian and Belarusian with English subtitles. Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes; No Intermission
Belarus Free Theatre: Burning Doors New York Premiere Presented by LA MAMA Experimental Theatre Club Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th St. Showtimes: Oct 12-22, Mon and Wed-Sat at 8:00pm, Sat 3:00pm, Sun 4:00pm, Post show Q&A after performance Wed Oct 18th. $30 Tickets; $25 Seniors/Students + $1 Facility Fee, Tickets available at box office one hour before show or call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101
Devised and performed by Belarus Free Theatre
Directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada; Written by Nicolai Khalezin Performers, Devisers & Co-Creators: Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau, Maryna Yurevich Guest Performer & Collaborator, Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot; Drum Score, Alexander Lyulakin; Choreographers, Bridget Fiske and Maryia Sazonava