Written By Nicolai Khalezin; Directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada
Devised and Performed by Belarus Free Theatre
Off Off Broadway, Experimental Theatre
Runs through 10.22.17
La MaMa Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street
by Ran Xia on 10.21.17
Maryia Sazonava and Maria Alyokhina in Burning Doors. Photo by Alex Brenner.
BOTTOM LINE: Belarus Free Theatre creates poetry out of brutal reality, with the breathtaking physical capacity of its performers sending an urgent and powerful message that's a wakeup call for whoever is willing to listen.
What is the purpose of art? There’s the burning question. Is it to shock, to educate, or to provoke change? Is it there to provide a certain solution to some uncertain problems? Or is entertainment an artist’s sole responsibility?
Here’s the other burning question: What happens when artists are treated like terrorists? Burning Doors holds up a magnifying glass to reality and sheds a brutally honest yet sympathetic light on three radical artists who have been treated like terrorists. The 12-year-old company Belarus Free Theatre devised the piece based on the experiences of three individuals who have been punished for their work by a system that discourages pushing the boundaries between art and politics: Maria Alyokhina of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who was sentenced to two years in jail (and appears in this production); Petr Ravlensky, the actionist who sewed his lips shut to protest the imprisonment of Alyokhina; and Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who’s at this very moment suffering the very worst of Russia’s gulag, a concept I didn’t know was still in action.
Three closed prison doors are painfully prominent at the back of the stage at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, where the ensemble elaborates a tale of three "artivists," warriors who fight not with gunpowder but their words and images, even their bodies. Maryia Sazonava sings a song about freedom in a booming voice; I was already in tears before the lights shifted and the female ensemble began to recap Maria Alyokhina's story, including the humiliation she’s experienced as a woman and the physical and psychological torment she’s endured as a vegetarian. The more abstract and poetic moments are mixed with satirical scenes depicting two government representatives talking about Putin’s amnesties for Alyokhina and her comrades, while watching soccer, or sitting on toilets. The segment ends with an open Q&A session with Alyokhina, which pauses the narrative to engage the audience.
Beyond storytelling, Burning Doors is like an endurance event. An extended period of hand-to-hand combat between two performers depicts the progression of the prisoner’s state of mind from passive and accepting, to eventually victorious. Although much of the violence is represented in an almost poetic way, the brutality of what takes place behind those closed doors makes the show hard to stomach. It assaults your senses and transports you to the prison cells of the Oleg Sentsovs of the world: piss, sweat, and cinders from the burning doors, along with songs about freedom bursting from every corner.
The fear and vulnerabilities of Burning Doors' subjects are apparent. But the point of the piece is that when it comes to artists, fear is not the thing that weighs them down, but rather, a fuel that make them keep going. Fear becomes a door to be burnt down. We must consider ourselves lucky, and realize the responsibility that comes with freedom, because it can be so easily taken away if we don't speak up when we have the chance.
(Burning Doors plays at the La MaMa Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, through October 22, 2017. The running time is one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 4. Tickets are $30 and are available at lamama.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
Burning Doors is by Belarus Free Theatre. Written by Nicolai Khalezin. Directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. Dramaturgy is by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. Choreography is by Bridget Fiske and Maryia Sazonava. Lighting & Video Design is by Joshua Pharo. Sound Design & Additional Music are by Richard Hammarton. Production Manager is Andy George. Stage Manager is Svetlana Sugako.
The cast is Maria Alyokhina, Pavel Haradnitski, Siarhei Kvachonak, Kiryl Masheka, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau, and Marnya Yurevich.