- Scorched Earth
Over the last decade or so, married Belarus Free Theatre co-founders Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada have become the de facto representatives of Eastern European theatre on the international stage. Political artist-activists working largely in exile, the pair are the Judith Malina and Julian Beck for the new millennium, their activism and theatrical output informing and often indistinguishable from each other. Unlike the Living Theatre, Belarus Free Theatre's exile is not self-imposed but born from repression in what commentators commonly call "Europe's last dictatorship." These reluctant emissaries of the underground Belarusian left have embraced their role with tenacity and brio, enlisting luminaries like Tom Stoppard and Jude Law as allies, and making waves in a theatrical culture that doesn't often look farther east than Germany.
Burning Doors, the company's latest provocation, explores the terror and liberatory joy of political performance. The production intermingles three case studies of dissident Russian performance artists: Maria Alyokhina, one of three members of Pussy Riot jailed in 2012 for two years because of a protest performance in an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow and a member of the play's ensemble; Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker currently serving a twenty-year sentence for alleged terrorist activities in Crimea following Russia's 2014 annexation of the territory; and Petr Pavlensky, who sewed his mouth shut to protest Pussy Riot's incarceration and later nailed his scrotum to the ground in Red Square, eventually being exiled to France. Pavlensky's performance Threat, in which he incinerated the door of Russia's FSB security service headquarters, inspired both the play's title and Khalezin's stage design: a simple white square playing space at the rear of which rises a white wall with three jail cell doors. [End Page 90]
Pavlensky's partner described him as "upbeat and in the mood for the struggle" during his trial, and the same could be said of Burning Doors. The company tells the dissidents' stories in a series of sketches that grow increasingly violent and acrobatic, a form of artistic punishment that mirrors the artists' torture and deprivations while converting them into something productive and aesthetic. These endurance tests, which blur the line between mimesis and enactment, include repeated dunking in a bathtub, holding a stack of plates at arm's length for as long as possible, slaps in the face, throwing each other to ground, wrestling, twirling, swinging, and climbing across the doors. The production's most buoyant moment comes when the doors swing open and three performers charge directly at the audience, only to be pulled back at the last second by large bungee cords around their torsos. They repeat this action incessantly, punctuated with shouts and loud music. This is Artaudian physical theatre inspiring shock and awe, not quite the direct as the interventions of Pussy Riot, Sentsov, and Pavlensky, but equally concerned with the body as the primary site of both oppression and resistance.
Khalezin and Kaliada understand that a humorless approach to performance is unlikely to change hearts or minds. Though built to bruise, Burning Doorsis often tongue-in-cheek, buoyed along by an original percussion score by Alexander Lyulakin of the Ukrainian band BoomBox that bangs on water glasses, floors, doors, and walls, and even incorporates the wind from a bass drum head waved in front of a microphone. The physical scenes are interspersed with comical sketches of bemused Russian bureaucrats attempting to understand the rebellious artists, the funniest of which takes place in a bathroom with no toilet paper. Midway through the evening, a table is brought out and Alyokhina provides an impromptu Q&A session with the audience as "herself." This blurring of role and performer further characterizes Burning Doorsas a performance about performance that does not ask if theatre can be politically efficacious (which the company clearly accepts as a given), but rather explores how and to what extent it is political. Representations are further blurred in the program as cast members...