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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

Led by the Goodman Theatre, a coalition of presenting and advocacy organizations, including Northwestern University, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the League of Chicago Theatres, arranged for performance venues in a matter of days, securing a month of work in Chicago for the Belarus actors and, in essence, buying them time to decide if they wanted to apply for political asylum in the United States.

"What we did was fast, and it was kind of instinctive," said Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman. "We felt, frankly, that there was a moral imperative to give these actors time to look at their options."

Falls also noted that the Belarus Free Theatre did not want to be seen as merely refugee-agitators looking for help from abroad and change at home but as international theater artists doing important work that could stand alone. They wanted their show to be seen and judged on its merits. "They're not just a political company," Falls said. "This is a beautiful work of art."

Indeed, emotions ran high at the Goodman Theatre opening on Jan. 27, as actors who were themselves in the middle of the Belarus protests that turned violent, spoke of prison, rape and torture including, in one especially horrific moment, an attack on a child.

They drew from their own experiences. But the piece was also contemplative and intensely self-aware; it was clear the artists were as intent on probing Pinter's process as celebrating his political activism.

The house was both full and supportive — the actors received a long and sustained ovation and performances have largely sold out.

Expressing her gratitude to Chicago, Koliada said that concerns still ran high for those affiliated with the company who did not get out under the radar and to family members at home in Belarus. But in the wake of the theater's visit to New York and Chicago and some accompanying protests in New York and Washington, pressure seemed to be ratcheting up on Lukashenko. It is not clear how or if this could affect the theater's future.

On Jan. 31, the United States and the European Union approved extra sanctions against Belarus and other officials, freezing their assets in the U.S. and Europe and preventing Lukashenko from entering either the U.S. or the nations of the European union.

The Belarus government protested this "interference in the affairs of a sovereign government," and last week, the Russian government called this move "counterproductive."

Meanwhile in Chicago, the biographies can be read and the show goes on through Feb. 20.

Jones is the drama critic for the Chicago Tribune.

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