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The Silence Zone

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From Belarus, Dynamic Drama With Limited Means

Published: April 18, 2011
The firecracker that is set off in the first seconds of the Belarus Free Theater’s astounding “Zone of Silence,” at La MaMa in the East Village, doesn’t make much noise, at least not as measured in decibels. But there’s a lot of power in the short, sharp pop of this homemade explosive.

It is devised from a shoelace and a kitchen match by an adult actor portraying a little boy. His smile conveys a sly ecstasy that you may recall from anarchic pranks of your childhood, stunts that courted punishment and rattled the grown-ups. Of course an element of fear lies within the exhilaration. You don’t set off fireworks without consequences in a work called “Zone of Silence.”

Since its inception in 2005, the Belarus Free Theater has carved an artistic identity and put its own existence in jeopardy by repeatedly making forbidden noise in defiant and imaginative style. Even its name, promising unshackled and unedited performance, could be read as an affront to the dictatorship that rules Belarus. Several months ago, it was unclear until the last minute whether the company would make it to New York in January to participate in the Under the Radar theater festival here.

Those who at that time saw this troupe’s production of “Being Harold Pinter,” which traces themes of institutionalized violence in Pinter’s work, might have been motivated by feelings of political righteousness. But what they saw was a work not just of courageous politics but also of dynamic and invigorating theatrical craftsmanship. The content of that production at La MaMa was devastating; its form blazed with the hope that comes from a deep, resourceful and unextinguishable creativity.

The Belarus Free Theater — which has not returned to its native country in the intervening months and seems unlikely to in the immediate future — is now back at La MaMa, where “Being Harold Pinter” runs in repertory with “Zone of Silence” and “Discover Love,” through May 15. (The plays are in Belarusian and Russian, with projected supertitles.) They should be seen by everyone who wants confirmation of the continuing relevance and vitality of theater as an art form.

Each of these works blooms with a spirit of invention nurtured by limited means and an improvisational readiness to make a stage wherever you find it. And while they are all, to different degrees, examples of documentary theater, their style is hardly confined to representational realism. This is a troupe, after all, that makes firecrackers out of shoelaces. Imagine what they do with a crate of oranges, or two balloons, or a chalkboard, or a bag of potatoes.

The spirit is also that of youthful rebellion, an instinct traced virtually to the cradle in “Childhood Legends,” the first of the three parts of “Zone.” Partly adapted from the experiences of troupe members, and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, “Legends” portrays a series of young lives flickering, guttering and occasionally rising into flame. The stories told are on one level universal: tales of humiliation and punishment by stern teachers, of unrequited early loves, of bewildering visits to sick grown-ups in hospitals.

From these mostly first-person accounts there emerges a particular, fine-grained sense of a gray world of deprivation within an imprisoning infrastructure inconceivable to most Americans. Suicide, which figures in two of these stories, is an understandable choice.

The telling, though, is never merely solemn or pious. Robust satire is in evidence, particularly in the portrayal of a teacher leading her charges in the national anthem. So is a deep love of craft, never so striking as in a vignette in which a doomed little girl (the real-life subject of a widely reported attempted adoption by an Italian couple) is shaped into physical existence by the artisanal skill and empathy of four actors with four newspapers.

Empathy, and its power to transform, infuses “Diversity,” the second act of “Zone,” a vibrant collage of portraits of Belarusians on the margins of society. Based on interviews with the people embodied here, they include a guitarist (and onetime Russian mafia member) with no arms, a mentally ill gay man of mixed race, an anachronistic worshiper of the Communist Party (who believes she speaks the language of birds and dogs) and a ranting street performer, who says he is the best dancer in the universe.

At the end of each segment, photographs or video footage of the real people behind the stories are shown. Contrary to what often occurs with such juxtapositions, you don’t feel that the live performances have been caricatures. And when the entire ensemble dances in sync with the filmed image of the street busker, it’s an act of strangely joyous spiritual communion.

Theater Group in Belarus Is Forced Underground (December 22, 2010) The sections of “Zone” inform and enrich one another, creating a collective, layered portrait of a society. (Like much first-rate journalism, this show translates hard facts into fluid, mutable life, and vice versa.) “Discover Love,” written and directed by Nikolai Khalezin, is more conventional in that it traces the course of a single life within that society. Irina Krasovskaya is the widow of Anatoly Krasovsky, a pro-democracy businessman who disappeared, along with the opposition politician Viktor Gonchar, in 1999.

The play includes direct statements (in voice-over and projected titles) that define “enforced disappearance” as a state-sanctioned crime (condemned by the United Nations), and video and photographic projections of protests against disappearances throughout the world. But its heart is the love story between Irina (played by the wonderful Marina Yurevich) and Tolia (Oleg Sidorchik).

This is mostly Irina’s narrative, her sentimental education in what love is or could be. We hear of her relationship with the handsome father she meets only three times in her life, of her girlhood crushes at school, of the sense of never having a fixed home. These reminiscences are flavored with the taste of potential happiness, as in her accounts of the exotic wonder of going to the circus.

And when Irina falls in love with Tolia, who had been her physics teacher, Ms. Yurevich and Mr. Sidorchik dance a tango that is truly happiness in motion. Such heights of pleasure are unsustainable, of course, and the early years of their marriage are a steady drone of merely subsisting. But as Tolia’s business grows, their relationship has room to breathe again. In a heart-clutching moment, Irina describes how, during a visit to Moscow to study, she calls her husband and starts crying, because she realizes that for the first time, she was able to call a place that she knew as home.

So when Tolia disappears — and this production imagines what happened to him in merciless detail — it’s not just the enormity of the crime that strikes us. It is also the vastness of what has been lost. Darkness is always more intense when you have glimpsed the sun. Much of the force of this invaluable troupe lies in its awareness that the light beyond the dark may be unreachable, but that it exists, tragically tantalizing, nonetheless



Николай ХАЛЕЗИН: «Америка нас любит…»
NV exclusive   Аўтар: Вольга ГРЫНЯВІЦКАЯ I 19 красавiка 2011 г.

В Америке с успехом  проходят гастроли белорусского «Свободного театра». На днях в «Нью-Йорк Таймс» вышла восторженная рецензия на спектакли "Зона молчания" и "Постигая любовь".
«Сегодня утром, когда мы ехали на эфир какого-то "главного нью-йоркского радио-шоу", наш друг, продюсер фестиваля Under the Radar Марк Расселл голосом заговорщика произнес: "Рецензии хорошие", -- написал в своем блоге драматург и худрук «Свободного театра» Николай Халезин. -- Я, зная о жесткой системе американских взаимоотношений "критик-творец", не очень понял, откуда у Марка может появиться эта информация -- система контроля за утечкой в Америке самая жесткая из всех, которые я знаю. После прямого эфира радио-шоу, Марк позвонил в театр LaMama и сказал только одну фразу: "Готовьтесь к нашествию". Марк Расселл -- один из ведущих американских продюсеров офф-Бродвея, и за каждое свое слово отвечает: статья в The New York Times вышла, и она на самом деле восторженная, паломничество за билетами и вправду началось, хотя и с первого спектакля особого дефицита зрителей не наблюдалось -- только на дневные спектакли можно было без проблем купить билеты».

По словам Халезина, на спектакле "Постигая любовь" в нью-йоркском театра LaMama, в финале весь зал встал во время оваций.

«После спектакля организаторы гастролей весело потирали руки, приговаривая "такое бывает только на Бродвее!", -- рассказывает Халезин. -- Не только -- во время январских гастролей зрители, "пробитые" спектаклем "Зона молчания" устроили такую же овацию. Во многих странах для театралов это дело привычное, но только не в Нью-Йорке. Да и на Бродвее они встают, зачастую, чтобы помянуть свои 200 долларов, отданные за билет…»

«Америка нас любит, и это не может не радовать, -- делает выводы белорусский драматург. -- Еще бы на родине все разрешилось -- можно было бы полноценно порадоваться».