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Burning Doors Review: Belarus Free Theatre and Pussy Riot Unite to Fight For Human Rights

In “Burning Doors,” Belarus Free Theatre’s latest arresting, arousing, athletic and anarchic play about state-sponsored injustice, one of the eight cast members strips naked as he tells the story of a man who had been sentenced to death by firing-squad for a political crime, but was given a last-minute reprieve. The man was distraught at the thought of having to live on, having made his peace with dying.

The ironic story, as we’re told in a caption when it’s finished, is an excerpt from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. It presents in microcosm both the hypnotic appeal and the challenge of the work by this extraordinary 12-year-old avant-garde ensemble.

“Burning Doors,” the company’s sixth show in New York since its debut at LaMama in 2010, is a sometimes assaultive, sometimes amusing, always intriguing collage of the political and the theatrical, with juxtapositions that can be jarring. They can require theatergoers, for example, to watch a naked man moving seductively about the stage and simultaneously to pay attention to the complex, multi-layered tale he’s telling, in Russian or Belarusian, with English surtitles.
Belarus Free Theatre is committed to using their art to champion free expression and advocate for human rights — so much so that they are officially banned from performing in their home country (but continue to do so anyway, underground.) The company continues its political work in “Burning Doors” by focusing on the true stories of three artists who have suffered at the hands of an authoritarian regime. One of them is Maria Alyokhina, who performs as herself. She was one of the masked members of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk-rock group that held guerilla performances in Moscow, who served 21 months in prison, charged with hooliganism. Alyokhina re-creates on stage some of her experiences while incarcerated, much of which were intended simply to humiliate and degrade her. She also conducts a “press conference” in English, answering audience questions for about 15 minutes.

The second is Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky, who engaged in bizarre acts of resistance to protest the imprisonment of Pussy Riot, including sewing his mouth shut in a public square. The third is Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups, is serving a 20-year sentence on a trumped-up charge of terrorism after opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. (Pavlensky demanded that he too be labeled a terrorist, the but the authorities refused.)

Each of their stories is told partially through comic scenes with three separate pairs of corrupt and bumbling bureaucrats discussing their cases — one pair at a cafe discussing the purchase of a yacht, one at a soccer stadium, one on adjoining toilets.

A full half hour of Burning Doors is given over to a visceral physical theater of heightened violence. Two of the actors literally throw each other around the room, ripping off their clothes. Two of the actresses slap each other silly.  One hangs from the neck by a rope. Four run away from a prison door, with a bungee cord to which they are attached, only to have the cords viciously snap them back. These are all surely metaphors. But they also help make a literally spectacular theatrical experience.

Burning Doors is on stage at LaMaMa ETC through October 22

Click on any photograph by Alex Brenner or Nicolai Khalezin to see it enlarged.

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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