“Time of Women,” a play in the Under the Radar festival based on the true story of three women journalists and activists imprisoned by the Belarusian dictatorship for protesting the fraudulent presidential elections of 2010, differs from most of the previous works by the Belarus Free Theatre that I’ve seen in New York. There is no extensive dance-like movement or elaborate use of theatrical metaphor, as in such works as “Trash Cuisine,” which was presented at La MaMa in 2015. But in its own way, “Time of Women” is just as powerful, or even, given the timing, even more so.
Belarus Free Theatre was founded in 2005 in Belarus, a former part of the Soviet Union that is now widely viewed as the most repressive and backward nation in Europe. Many consider the members of Belarus Free Theatre to be heroes for standing up to the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime arrested and eventually banned the troupe. Though the husband and wife founders Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada have been political refugees in England since 2011, they continue to oversee productions that have toured 42 countries – and that continue underground, in private apartments, in Belarus.
It was in Belarus in 2014 that “Time of Women” debuted, which may be why, in the 40-seat Shop Theater at the Tisch School of the Arts, the setting is a simple apartment, where the actresses depicting Irina Khalip, Natalya Radina and Nasta Palazhanka gather for a holiday reunion. There is a Christmas tree near the couch. But the most prominent pieces of furniture in the apartment are a three-tiered bunk bed whose bottom “bed” is the floor, and an office desk. The bunk bed represents the prison where the women were confined, and their everyday activities – drying hair after a shower, baking a cake – mix uneasily with their recollection of their time imprisoned, which they relate (in Russian with English surtitles) but also relive, lying on the bed in a strained and strange light, unable to separate their past from the present, the living nightmare of the confinement with their daily waking life.
After a while, a young man passes through the apartment and sits at the desk. He is Orlov, the bureaucrat who interrogates them one by one, as he casually slurps instant noodles and tries both the carrot and stick approach – if they only sign a statement, they can be released instantly, and be back with their ailing mother or their husband, beaten up during a peaceful protest. If they don’t sign, their ovaries will rot in prison, and they will never be able to have children. At times, he sounds reasonable; at times, he yells in their faces, making ugly threats. But his paroxysm of angry shouting is nowhere as terrifying as the final, desperate scream by Nasta.
“Time of Women” feels like an accurate depiction of the surreal life under a capricious, power-hungry head of state, and Belarus Free Theatre offers a role model for creating art in the face of authoritarian opposition.
Time of Women was presented for six performances through January 15, 2017.
Written by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada
Director Nicolai Khalezin
Cast: Maryia Sazonava (Iryna), Maryna Yurevich (Natalya), Yana Rusakevich (Nasta), Kiryl Kanstantsinau (Investigator)