In “Burning Doors” at On the Boards, Belarus Free Theatre stages harrowing and sometimes improbably funny parables about making art despite real-life political repression.
To say the artists had to “sneak” out of Belarus to perform in Seattle this weekend would be a slight overstatement — but the travel arrangements were delicate and potentially risky, to them and their families.
Natalia Kaliada, co-founding artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, requested that The Seattle Times not share details about the company’s itinerary. Kaliada co-directed “Burning Doors,” an intense, impressionistic rendering of three real-life stories of artists living under political repression, which the group is currently performing at On The Boards.
Getting Belarus Free Theatre into the United States is not, she explained, the kind of situation where you can seat a dozen theater artists on a plane at once. “We can’t show to the authorities that this company is leaving,” she said, “because we are called ‘unstable elements,’ so we do it in a way that is not possible to track us down.” Both Kaliada and the C.I.A. describe Belarus, run by President Aleksandr Lukashenko for over two decades, as a “dictatorship.”
Belarus Free Theatre: ‘Burning Doors’
Through Oct. 1, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $15-$30 (206-217-9886 or ontheboards.org).
Every performer in “Burning Doors,” Kaliada said, has been arrested (and some tortured) for political and artistic activity. “I was arrested only four times,” she added in a flatly factual, neither-martyr-nor-hero tone. Once, she said, she was forced to stand against a jail wall for 24 hours: no moving, no sitting, no using a bathroom, no food, no water. “Since that time, whenever I see water, I take some water.”
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Others suffered worse. She said her husband and co-artistic director Nicolai Khalezin — who is also a journalist — was once stuffed into a two-foot-by-two-foot cell and only allowed to use the bathroom a single time during the first three days after his arrest.
Once you know a few details from the company’s back stories, the gut-punch images of “Burning Doors” (performed in Russian with English supertitles projected above the stage, and featuring Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot) land much harder.
A few examples: (1) In one sequence, a performer is stripped nearly naked, savaged in a choreographed beating and hoisted by his wrists high above the stage with a metal pail beneath him. His head hangs limp, he moans softly, then urinates through his underpants onto the floor while swinging slowly from the rope.
(2) The stark but surprisingly complex set involves a white floor; a white wall; the ominous-looking ropes; and three corroded metal jail-cell doors with bars through which the actors playing prisoners are strangled by guards who reach through the bars to grab their throats.
(3) The text of an interrogation of artist Petr Pavlensky, with his intensely cogent replies, taken from real transcriptions, while video footage plays of Pavlensky after having his mouth sewn shut in solidarity with the persecution of Pussy Riot, and after having nailed his scrotum to the stones of Red Square in Moscow.
“Burning Doors” starkly illustrates that his actions — and those of his fellow artists — mock the absurdity of arbitrary power by making artistic gestures that might look ridiculous from the outside, but reveal something about the seriousness of their political situations, and attract attention from the outside world with viscerality and self-violence.
Occasionally, the real-life horror of “Burning Doors” takes nearly-as-shocking jags into gallows humor. Rich government functionaries watch a football game or sit face-to-face on toilets, pants below their knees, complaining about “those artists” who “the boss” (read Putin and/or Lukashenko) keeps making them “deal with,” even though they know throwing artists in jail is a public-relations nightmare. The moment is a joke, but the opening-night audience seemed too uncomfortable to laugh.
At another moment, the house lights come up for a surprise, live question-and-answer session with Alyokhina. The crowd was totally unprepared.
After an awkward pause, one audience member asked: “Why make a play?” Alyokhina paused with a puzzled expression. “Uh, because of the things which we are talking about here?” That got a laugh. “Did you ever speak to Putin?” somebody else asked. Alyokhina furrowed her brow and smiled sardonically. “I think so, yes.” Another laugh from the room. “I think the last five years,” she said, “have been a conversation.” (The implication was that Alyokhina, who was sent to prison in 2012 for her alleged “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” had never personally talked to Putin.)
A few audience members left before the show was over, but that’s their loss. “Burning Doors” ended with an unusually thunderous standing ovation for On the Boards, plus several curtain calls. The Belarus Free Theatre performers are some of the most physically and psychologically muscular actors I’ve seen in years. They wrestle, they get flung around the stage on ropes, they catch and throw each other — all in precisely choreographed actions. And they’re taking real-life risks for themselves and their families just to be here.
But, despite all the suffering they’ve endured and witnessed, they maintain their sense of humor. During a rehearsal at On the Boards, just a few hours before opening night, an actor walked onstage to be hoisted by a rope by the neck in a staged hanging. She began to urgently recite a poem inspired by filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested in Ukraine on terrorism charges — shortly after Russia annexed Crimea — and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian court. Sentsov is still behind bars.
Then she stopped, sputtered and chuckled, hanging by the neck above the stage. She’d forgotten the next line. The rest of the cast and crew laughed, a few holding their stomachs. From backstage, somebody shouted a prompt. She snapped right back into the grimness of the scene.
Earlier that day, Kaliada said her father-in-law had a heart attack and died after Belarusian security forces raided his apartment looking for her and her husband. Once, her brother-in-law was beaten so badly, she said, “his chest was broken.” Company members have lost jobs, been threatened, been arrested, been tortured.
So why does Belarus Free Theatre keep doing this? And how can they possibly laugh while doing it?
“It is our life,” she answered. “We love what we do. We love creating theater. It’s not possible for me to explain why we would stop. I could only ask: ‘Why would it end?’ ”