Burning Doors features Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina and runs until October 22nd.
Burning Doors is a determined piece, but not a stern one. It is not designed to be terrifying. But it is traumatic. It is clinical and nonorganic. Belarus Free Theatre worked with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina to share stories of persecuted artists, living under dictatorship. The piece is assembled by pulling the real-life stories of Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky, incarcerated Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina.
The aesthetics here are just right. The writing is wry and uniquely Russian- Nicolai Khalezin has a knack for up-to-date and on-a-dime storytelling. Choreography is tight and not by choice: any number of missteps could seriously injure the ensemble.
In a recollecting style and quickly paced- visuals in lockstep with words, Alyokhina’s imprisonment is colored cooly by universal abuses endured by Russian prisoners. Alyokhina offers a concise and flat performance- the lack of emotion structurally essential for the story- prison hardens you, making you more stubborn than you already are. Here, Alyokhina’s treatment is presented as a literally circus.
Alyokhina’s sublime eyes and movements and general beauty creates- perhaps counter to Russian government intention- an air of glamor around protest. The media lays in on her, and with each high-profile arrest, the pressure continues to mount.
Maryia Sazonava and Maryna Yurevich and Stanislava Shablinskaya join in this scene. They work well together, later appearing in a brutal shouting match of distress and call-and-response which initially seems distant but melds into an oddly comforting breaking point- through the screaming, they are united in their pain. Alyokhina and the BFT ensemble members speak Russian and Belarusian as English subtitles appear on a wall.
The loose follow up to her story is in regard to the Petr Pavlensky situation, who is known for making the police cut through a barbed wire cocoon of which he occupied as well setting fire to the doors of the Russian Federal Security Service.
The doors-on-fire approach isn’t unusual, Oleg Sentsov is in prison for setting fire to the doors of the Russian Community in Crimea offices (ultimately billed as terrorism).
The stories flow in and out of each other, but the latter portion of the performance is rare- intense scenes of torture- hanging, exhausting punching fights, drowning, shouting. All shown in their full duration, these moments physically straining and emotionally demanding but ultimately of little gain. These scenes go on for so long, that it serves as a taste of what the reality might be like. The final scene comes after a particularly brutal torture scene in which a hanging prisoner literally urinates on himself, a humiliating moment, witnessed by everyone. The light at the end is held by Maryna Yurevich enters swinging a single light bulb on a cord and recites verbatim from Oleg Sentsov’s final testimony before his prison sentence.
It’s hard to decide how to look at these moments- with horror or not? The audience becomes the bureaucracy in this way- annoyed and uncomfortable but unable to do anything about it. The torture makes you want to look away, but notice the individuals- including the torturer, grow weary.
The bureaucracy plays a role in the performance, portrayed by Pavel Haradnitski, Andrei Urazau, Kiryl Masheka, and Siarhei Kvachonak. Appearing in pairs, they blindly deal with the artists in question, even exploring the implications of Picasso and more adventurous subjects- faux intellectual engagements between sparring over jets and football tickets. It’s a look at the damning lack of concern, the dismissal, the sheer confidence in their positions.
The takeaway of this work is the lack of effect prison has on the bottom line of these individuals and those countering society. Prison is brutal and grim and in need of reform, but its treatments are not unfamiliar to those who bump up against social and political norms every day. It’s the lack of people that drives the negative energy, the hollow games, the step-and-repeat. It takes much more to break an artist.
Burning Doors runs until October 22nd at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.
Ellen Stewart Theatre
66 East 4th Street
(btw Bowery & 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10003