“I think it is beautiful, what he did. I think he is brave.” That was Maria Alyokhina’s response during the interview section of the new performance piece by Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors. It was a question posed to her by an audience member regarding Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem and the broiling national debate created in the aftermath. The audience, on the night I attended the performance, burst into spontaneous applause -- another amazing moment in a series of amazing moments in the moving, brilliant, sometimes terrifying, sometimes devastating new work at La MaMa.
Yes, I too believe that Kaepernick was brave for what he did, but compared to what? Maria Alyokhina herself was incarcerated in Russia for two years for performing with her band Pussy Riot in a church in Moscow. Two years. It’s inconceivable, to us. So, I must ask you, dear reader, how do I get you to buy a ticket to Burning Doors? The very fact that you can read these words means that you don’t suffer very much. You are concerned, of course, we all are so very concerned. But are we brave? No. Belarus Free Theatre Company is brave, Alyokhina is brave, Oleg Sentsov (currently incarcerated for 17 more years) is brave and Petr Pavlensky (arrested numerous times for his art) is brave. Make no mistake, this is theatre at its deepest core, a shriek of pain, the smell of sweat, the text that both thrills you and loses you all in a moment. Don’t miss this if you love to be a part of something.
Surprisingly, there are a few brief moments of comedy too, in all the pain. It’s a spoonful of sugar, which we need to help us digest the true stories this work of art documents. We witness two men (the thrilling, brooding Pavel Haradnitski and the lithe Andrei Urazau) chatting about sports and politics as they sit on toilets; they also discuss the sentencing of artists in prison. We see these men over and over, in brief comic turns and we recognize ourselves. We witness the offhand way we discuss world politics, as if we are discussing the weather. It’s a brilliant device. The respite here, two buddies, somewhat conservative, somewhat liberal also allows us to begin to clarify all the players in this dizzyingly dense array of stories. Quotes and scenes enacted during the evening’s compelling performance are comprised of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov and Foucault. There’s found text and new stories from the artists currently incarcerated. It’s work, I’ll admit, but through it all we relive major events in the lives of prisoners of political war. It’s work but the payoff is huge.
Throughout the evening there are moments of dance/torture. The images are stunning: a woman is catapulted through the air, no net, directly at the audience, held aloft by her hands and feet in nooses. Performers are tearing off each other’s clothes, then they are flinging themselves at us, held tight by cords, snarling at us like dogs. It’s terrifying and absolutely thrilling. The culmination? A hanging, preceded by what seems to be a moment’s pause, a prisoner drinking water, sobbing into the bucket he drinks from. Then, that same life giving water becomes the last dripping remains of life seeping out of his hanging corpse. The audience’s response? We wept openly together. Be Brave. Go and see Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.