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Belarus Free Theater's "Minsk, 2011" Sets Stage on Fire

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by Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic/hweiss@suntimes.com

When: Through Feb. 3
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs, 300 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $20
Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

It is a cliche to say that artists who work under a totalitarian regime often seem to acquire a unique touch of divine fire. Great art should not have to be the outgrowth of oppression, censorship and pain, whether psychological, physical or both. But the truth is, something DOES happen to those who put their life on the line in the service of free expression and protest and, above all else, in the pursuit of great art.

A case in point that suggests the crazy dynamics of all this: The alternately incendiary, ferocious, poetic and altogether shattering Belarus Free Theatre production of "Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker," now in a far too brief visit at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs. The 90-minute show, which runs through Feb. 3, should not be missed by anyone who cares about the state of the world, and, more crucially, by anyone who wishes to be reminded of why live theater, an art form that has existed almost since the beginning of time, still has the power to shake us to the core.

The nine actors in this production, most in their 20s and 30s, have all suffered under the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who has served as president of the landlin the company have been detained or imprisoned, some are in exile, nearly all have lost their jobs at state theaters and elsewhere for their collaboration with the Belarus Free Theatre or their participation in peaceful street rallies. But the miracle is that they have been able to transform their emotional scars into the most raw, intimate, absurd, terrifying, romantic, perversely erotic, often horrifying and yet -- miraculously -- sometimes comic and sentimental scenes. And they use only their fearless, sublimely honed skills, and the most rudimentary props ( a shaggy red carpet, red plastic chairs) to do so.

The mesmerizing effect begins with the show's opening sequence, in which several young babushkas, dressed in floral housecoats, stand smiling and ready to wield their street-sweeping brooms. Again and again an ordinary citizen will nervously arrive center stage -- holding a rainbow flag, or about to play a flute, or just thinking about checking his wristwatch or trying to utter a word -- only to be carried off by a band of thugs. The sweep-up begins seconds after they disappear.

One man takes us through a history of the scars on his body -- from childhood accidents to the present. A woman recalls the history of Minsk's subway system and a particularly life-changing terror attack. A terrified gay boy gives his interrogator vital information about a tractor factory cafeteria that becomes a raunchy sex club by night. A girl explains how her fear of sex becomes something else. Throughout, sex becomes a metaphor for terror and punishment and a corrupt and deformed society, with one particularly fearless actress, Yana Rusakevich, stripped bare, painted from head to toe in black, wrapped in paper and taped like a mummy, only to emerge with a whip.

But there is a gentle, yearning side to "Minsk, 2011," as well. You feel it in a scene about the cheap wine, dubbed "Ink," that is drunk by locals, and in the talk about the unexpected beauty of the city and the magic of snow, and in the strangely compelling tug of the homeland captured in haunting renditions of Belarusian folk songs.

That is enough for descriptions. The best that can be said here is that you miss this very adult show at your peril, so try your best to see it. It will leave its own scars.

Note: "Minsk, 2011" is performed in Belarusian with English supertitles. But language is secondary here. Just watch the faces and bodies of these remarkable performers.

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This page contains a single entry by Hedy Weiss published on January 31, 2013 4:50 PM.

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