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Belarus Free Theatre fuses politics, art in 'Being Harold Pinter'

The troupe and its actors/political activists find a supportive audience in Chicago with a deeply personal work.

February 06, 2011|By Chris Jones
  • The Belarus Free Theatre performs "Being Harold Pinter" at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.
The Belarus Free Theatre performs "Being Harold Pinter" at… (Chris Salata, Chicago Tribune )

Reporting from Chicago — — Most actors visiting Chicago end the brief biographies in theater programs with cute shout-outs to mentors or loved ones. Not the seven performers from the Belarus Free Theatre, who usually ply their trade in Minsk in the Republic of Belarus, the former Soviet republic famously called "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe" by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Actor Aleh Sidorchyk's program note concludes with "He has been arrested for his professional activities." The blurb for Dzianis Tarasenka says, "He has been assaulted during peaceful political action." Both "he has been put on trial" and "he was assaulted next to his house" appear by the name of Nikolai Khalezin, both an actor and co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre.

According to the British group Index on Censorship and other international reports, government forces have routinely intervened in Belarus — especially in the melee last December after President Alexander G. Lukashenko's disrupted "reelection"— when artists and activists have been deemed too critical of the government. And since its founding in March 2005, the underground Belarus Free Theatre has been near the top of Lukashenko's hit list, even as it has found passionate support elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.

In early January, the beleaguered Belarusian actors had a gig at New York's Under the Radar Festival, sponsored by the New York Public Theater. Natalia Koliada, the other co-founder and also a general producer, said the company had decided there was a high probability of not being allowed to leave Belarus if their exit to New York was made through official channels. "So we broke into small groups," she said. "We all left Belarus 'under the radar,' so to speak."

Once they made it to New York with their production of "Being Harold Pinter," performed in Russian and Belarusian with English supertitles, the actors and their show were rapturously received by critics and audiences stunned not only by the courage of the artists but by the force of the work. A host of celebrities, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Olympia Dukakis, Laurie Anderson, Mandy Patinkin and Lily Rabe, showed up for a Public Theater benefit in support of the company on Jan. 17, even taking part in the show and speaking lines that were drawn from the words of Belarusian political prisoners.

"I think it was the best Pinter I have ever seen," said playwright Tony Kushner. "It blew me away."

An ensemble piece adapted and directed by Vladimir Scherban ("He has been arrested for his political activities"), "Being Harold Pinter" intermingles text from several of Pinter's late plays — "Mountain Language," "One for the Road," "The Homecoming," "Old Times," "Ashes to Ashes" — with the atypically revealing and self-explanatory acceptance speech that Pinter gave when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005.

Among other matters, that speech dealt with the gulf between the elusive and ambiguous search for truth in drama ("you collide with it in the dark," Pinter said), as compared with what Pinter increasingly saw as the constant and imperative need for all writers and theater artists to be politically engaged ("The search for truth cannot be postponed," he said). And thus toward the end of "Being Harold Pinter," the Pinter texts fall away and the words of the persecuted Belarusian dissidents take over.

In essence, "Being Harold Pinter," one of several pieces in the Belarus Free Theatre repertoire, confronts the problems inherent to political theater — or any other kind of political art. Sermonize and proselytize from the stage and you not only risk sounding a shrill note, but you don't have much of a play. On the other hand, a stark, subtle and metaphoric piece can be so oblique and self-examinatory that it fails to inspire real change.

Pinter wrestled throughout his career with that very dilemma — but the Belarusians' struggle for articulation of truth is, of course, more immediate. "A matter of life and death" is the phrase Kushner uses.

As its short run at Under the Radar drew to a close, the company starting wondering what to do next.

"They say that if we go back we will have to see the KGB [the name is still used for the security services in Belarus], and it will be five to 15 years in jail," Koliada said. Remaining in the U.S. was problematic, she said, because their artists' visas could not be extended without actual U.S. performances booked. The company's next booking is in Hong Kong, at the end of February. After that, its schedule is unclear.

After their New York engagement, Chicago stepped up to fill that gap.

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