Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay with final show

  
  

Playing to sold out crowds, Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay

  
 

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk

This past Monday night, the Belarus Free Theatre gave its last Chicago performance of Being Harold Pinter to a packed house at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Their world tour will now carry them to Hong Kong and London, a development they hardly anticipated when they first escaped from the Belarus secret police in January to perform in New York City for Under the Radar Festival, sponsored by Public Theatre. As artists on the run, they have one overriding mission—to alert the world to the conditions of torture, unlawful detention and disappearance occurring in “the last dictatorship in Europe” and to continue strong sanctions imposed on Belarus for its mass arrests of Alexander Lukashenko’s political opposition during post-election demonstrations on December 19 last year.

The applause they received upon entering the champagne reception afterwards echoed the standing ovation that crowned up their final performance in Chicago. While undoubtedly deserved, one couldn’t help feeling the inadequacy of what we were offering them–that what they needed most were not cocktails and hors d’oeurvres but a home free from the terrors of state oppression. The star presence of John Mahoney, Ora Jones, Phillip James Brannon, Stephen Louis Grush, and others who joined the actors onstage to read eye-witness accounts of KGB brutality paled before both the cast’s plight and their bold achievement.

Overwhelming our attention were names of the imprisoned and tortured, their images printed up on posterboards and lined in the lobby—Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party; journalists Natalya Radina and Irina Khalip; Andrei Sannikov, Vladimir Nekliaev and Nikolai Statkevich, opposition presidential candidates; Dmitri Bondarenko, European Belarus Movement coordinator; Maya Abramchik and Svetlana Nosova suffering leg and eye injury from being tortured and young Danik, whose parents are still in jail from the December crackdown. “These were the photographs that we made in time for the NYC performance in January,” said BFT director Vladimir Scherban. “Some of the people have been released from jail but are under house arrest now. As for the images of those tortured, these are just those photos that we could get to print.”

With the help of BFT co-founder Natalia Kaladia, I had managed to corner Scherban for an interview:

PL: So, how long will your tour continue from Chicago?

VS: We’ll be in Hong Kong for less than two weeks, then on to London. We’re planning to perform the play in Parliament. We hope so.

PL: So you have UK politicians helping you to set that up?

VS: We have good contacts with British artistic figures. And we hope to return here. We plan to continue our contacts with the Goodman Theatre, with the Public Theatre and the Baryshnikov Theatre in New York.

PL: Have you received enough funding from your performances here for the tour?

VS: (shrugs) We hardly knew we would be here when we arrived in New York. I suppose so—we’d plan on only 4 performances and how spontaneous to perform 14 in Chicago, fully sold out. So, this was very strange but also very pleasant situation that we could do this for Chicago audiences.

PL: How is your application for asylum in the US going?

VS: (shrugs) I really don’t know about asylum. It’s a big question whether that’s going to happen or not. We cannot re-enter our own country. Our members have already received threats or orders to return. We constantly receive threats in the form of our relatives and neighbors being called late at night by the police about our whereabouts. Several members have received invitations from the police to show up for interrogation.

Unfortunately, this [Belarus] government only understands sanctions, straightforward and unwavering sanctions. The last elections, only very harsh sanctions forced the president [Lukashenko] to release the opposition presidential candidates from jails. Discussions do nothing. During discussions, political candidates just become goods to sell America and the EU.

What you have to know about the demonstrations that took place on December 19th is that there was snow on the ground. After the police had stormed the crowd and assaulted the people, the snow was stained with blood. Then at university, students who were absent on the day of the demonstration were ordered to go for a medical check up and if they looked like they had been beaten up from the demonstration, they were expelled from school.

In some ways, it’s easier for us. We don’t fear this anymore. We’ve been beaten up, we’ve been arrested, we’ve lost our places at work—we’ve gotten used to working under pressure.

PL: What would you like people to take away most about your stay here?

VS: Well, a very big idea for everyone to understand is that we mean serious things. We’re not just about going around and telling our story. We are expecting Obama to be very precise about our situation and take a clear position against the Belarus government. This is what people should know: people are being beaten up, thrown in jail, and disappeared. [BFT co-founder] Nikolai [Khalezin] has had 9 friends disappeared in the last 16 years. The people you see on the posters who are in jail? They’re our friends, our audience.

PL: Anything else you’d like to say?

VS: Wish us luck!


UPDATE: Since the posting of this interview, the OSCE  – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – published its report on Belarus’s December presidential election, declaring that the election did not meet the criteria for being free and fair.


 

           
Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin_thumb[1] Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk - Belarus Free Theatre - Being Harold Pinter_thumb[1]
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich_thumb[2] Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Goodman Theatre_thumb[5]
     
     

REVIEW: Being Harold Pinter (Belarus Free Theatre)

  
  

Fiercely good.

  
  

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk of Belarus Free Theatre - 'Being Harold Pinter' at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

  
Belarus Free Theatre presents
  
Being Harold Pinter
  
Adapted and Directed by Vladimir Scherban
at
Goodman / Chicago Shakes / Northwestern Univ
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $20  | 
more info

Performance Schedule

     

January 27-29
Goodman Theatre

Feb 4-6, 11-13
Northwestern University

Feb 17-20
Chicago Shakes Upstairs


Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Somehow, in the midst of bleak Chicago winter, a spirit of rebellion has startled the Chicago theater community from its near-hibernation complacency. Yet, I shouldn’t say “somehow.” The Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the League of Chicago Theatres and Northwestern University have joined forces to shepherd that spirit of rebellion here from New York City’s Under the Radar Festival. But the originators, the guardians of that spirit, the theater company for whom political drama is very definitely NOT an intellectual exercise, the Belarus Free Theatre, has arrived and they have spiked a reawakening to the impact of art speaking truth to power.

'Being Harold Pinter', adapted and directed by Vladimir Scherban of the Belarus Free Theatre.Since BFT has only just eluded the iron grasp of the Belarusian government to come to these shores and, since its founding in 2005, nearly every one of the company has been subjected to imprisonment and/or police harassment due to their “peaceful political and theatrical activities,” they are sure to be the darlings for many Americans in a self-congratulatory mood about the blessings of our democracy and its First Amendment protections compared to Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko. To be sure, for the moment, the US is not quite in dire straits equal to the citizens of Belarus–but two years into Obama’s administration neither do we stand on the moral high ground we once occupied. Bradley Manning endures solitary confinement without trial or sentence; within Chicago and Minneapolis the FBI invaded the homes of anti-war activists.

Thus, what a thoughtful and delicate balancing act the Belarus Free Theatre performs for our delectation. It’s not enough to acknowledge how skillfully they interweave notable sections of Pinter’s plays with the direct, eyewitness accounts of the torture and political persecution of Belarus’ citizens. Rather, Being Harold Pinter sits first and foremost upon the foundation of Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech—a speech that excoriates the United States for its illegal invasion of Iraq, its maintenance of Gitmo and its Cold War manipulations in Central and South America.

But most of that is left out of director Vladimir Scherban’s adaptation. Perhaps it is because they are our guests but, more likely, Being Harold Pinter is neither crude agitprop nor is it a collage of Pinter’s words and selected scenes. Scherban takes very seriously Pinter’s view on the role of the artist and the role of the citizen, a discourse that frames every scene yet shift-shapes with each dramatic moment. Perhaps more powerfully than anything else, through Pinter’s own inquiries into the nature of truth, coupled with scenes of interrogation pulled from his plays Ashes to Ashes, Old Times, The Homecoming, One for the Road, The New World Order and Mountain Language, Sherban and his seeringly consummate cast unveil Pinter himself as a Grand Inquisitor in his own way.

     
Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren. Maryna Yurevich, Pavel Haradnitski and Aleh Sidorchyk in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren. Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin in Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As for execution, they are fiercely good. Using minimal props loaded with significance, the cast tosses off Pinter’s dialogue and glides through scenes I’ve witnessed actors in this town clod-hop their way through. That the Belarus Free Theatre would engage Pinter’s sadomasochistic power plays as a reflection on what they endure from their own prevailing KGB seems like a no-brainer. But what they also reveal is Pinter’s mind going through its own non-stop interrogation. That is the diamond to be found in the middle of all the suffering, degradation and carnage. What they depict of Pinter is a soul in unrelenting pursuit of what is true and the dangerous struggle to present that truth and render it in a way from which audiences cannot escape. Finally, they ground Pinter’s drama with real life accounts from the tortured of their country. The BFT plays for keeps and they should not be missed.

As for their future, the Belarus Free Theatre is still a band on the run. According to Roche Schulfer, The Goodman Theatre’s Executive Director, their visas were set to expire close to the end of the New York festival but so long as they could find more gigs to perform, they would not have to return to Belarus, where they would surely meet with more persecution. Their manager is currently in Washington D.C., consulting with the Secretary of State’s office about asylum. Meanwhile, they’ve booked more performances in Hong Kong and London after Chicago.

By the way, here’s another small Chicago connection: in 2005 the BFT produced a play by Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis, which is currently enjoying a remount during Curious Theatre Branch’s 22nd Annual Rhinoceros Festival. Their production was banned in Belarus and they had to continue it underground.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
      
  

Scene from Belarus Free Theatre's 'Being Harold Pinter'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     
     

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