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Maria Alyokhina, Pussy Riot, Burning Doors, Belarus Free Theatre, La Mama, Nicolai Khalezin, Natalia Kaliadau
Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot in 'Burning Doors,' Belarus Free Theatre, La Mama, Nicolai Khalezin, Natalia Kaliada (Alex Brenner)

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Burning Doors’ with Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, Belarus Free Theatre

Does freedom retain its meaning if citizens refuse to suffer and die to substantiate it? And if cowardice and stupidity stop one’s resistance to corruption and tyranny, does freedom even exist? These questions silently scream throughout the brilliant production Burning Doors. Currently at La Mama, written by Nicolai Khalezin, and directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, the play must be seen and supported. The sterling, intense theatrical experiences it offers mandate our encouragement. Blasting us with vital truths, such political theater empowers us to change.

Because of the performers’ amazing soulful energy, Burning Doors enlightens, inspires, enthralls, provokes. The team of artists at Belarus Free Theatre deeply care about freedom and remind us we must care. We feel viscerally their brutal yet vital dynamic of oppression and resistance. And we identify with the activists’ words and admire their actions. Indeed, as an example of protest theater, Burning Doors engages with trenchant power.

The production combines the poetry and other writings of great authors with those of contemporary artist-activists. Sadly, Vladimir Putin’s government vilifies and imprisons protest artists, and uses torture that may result in death to those who consistently threaten the status quo with their art.

Maria Alyokhina, Belarus Free Theatre, Burning Doors, La Mama
Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot in ‘Burning Doors,’ La Mama, Belarus Free Theatre, (Alex Brenner)

The play brings us the story of filmmaker and pro-Ukranian activist Oleg Sentsov, who languishes in a Siberian prison for 17 years of a 20-year sentence, accused of “terrorism” though only symbolic material objects of government were damaged. His punishment appears unjust. Indeed, though murderers receive equivalent or lighter sentences, Sentsov remains an enemy of the state, which fears his activism. Why? He gave food to Ukranian soldiers marooned at a base following Russia’s takeover, an act the state considers illegal. His severe punishment sends a message to others. Particularly, the Kremlin desires that Ukranians and pro-Ukranians should remain passive cowards. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is the true illegality. Resistance becomes a moral imperative in this Kremlinesque world where up becomes down and left becomes right.

Belarus Free Theatre, La Mama, Nicolai Khalezin, Natalia Kaliada
Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Burning Doors,’ La Mama (Nicolai Khalezin)

Segments of the production honor Sentsov’s courageous actions and reveal the oppression, the unjust brutality, and the suffering inflicted on prisoner-activists. As performers read Sentsov’s words, which flash in English translation on the white set, we recognize the greatness of his comments. And we understand the real cowardice of those who violently oppress through tyranny. Indeed, oppressors living in fear become more caged than those they imprison.

Can villainy endure against such courage to seek freedom of the soul? Or will truth and its power overcome such unjust, corrupt evil? The production outlines the magnitude of this struggle. Amid the battle of wills and minds comes a growing freedom to resist. As the tyrants reveal themselves as afraid, they weaken, while their victims evolve to endure and flow into the substance of freedom. Inevitably, Burning Doors suggests freedom’s substance forged by an activist’s will magnifies and demands change. Consequently, as the victimizers grow weaker, more autocratic, bullying and fearful, their position becomes unsustainable. Against artist-activists, the brutes succumb sooner rather than later. Persistence and patience win the day.

Additionally, Burning Doors sears our intellect with commentary by contributors who include Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot. Arrested 40 seconds after a musical protest in a church, Pussy Riot underwent a show trial that delivered a two-year prison sentence. Putin’s government and its hypocritical condemnation rang hollow with global celebrities who joined in protest. As we watch these events through film projections, including Maria’s commentary and humorous interactions between Putin functionaries, we learn the powerful nature of resistance. We learn of the public opinion’s evolution toward critical mass. And when critical mass explodes into massive protest, the state quails and caves. Change comes. It arrives not without suffering, deprivation, starvation, collapse. Yet, incrementally, by example, such resistance empowers each wave of artist-activists as they stand against tyranny to seek freedom.

Maria Alyokhina, Belarus Free Theatre, Burning Doors, La Mama
Maria Alyokhina, Belarus Free Theatre, Burning Doors, La Mama (Alex Brenner)

Subsequently, Pussy Riot’s protests and resistance reflected poorly on Putin’s government globally. The negative PR prompted the group’s release. Indeed, the way Belarus Free Theatre presents the functionaries’ response to artist-activists like Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky sparks hysterical laughter. In particular we appreciate how writer Nicolai Khalezin melds the activists’ inspiring courageous words with those of Michel Foucault, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and other classic writers, alternating humorous scenes with sober commentary from these writers’ works.

Impeccably choreographed dance lends gravitas and supports the truths in the commentary. For example, as two men battle silently, with persistence and stamina one gradually triumphs. Using ropes and twisted body contortions against prison doors, the performers relay the soul’s striving to be free under the insane conditions the state uses to bow it down.

Especially in the case of Oleg Sentsov, whose protests of injustice against Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea continue, the performers’ physical symbolism of the struggle shrieks against Putin’s lies. These physical segments target not only the Kremlin’s cowardice but its eventual failure to conquer the human spirit and people’s will to determine their own freedom.

The magnificence of Burning Doors becomes extremely significant for U.S. citizens as an encouragement to resist injustice wherever it rears its horrific head. The production’s themes, factual references, and commentary serve as reminders too. The Kremlin and Putin’s government should not be confused with the lenient and rational democracies of the European Union. Nor should the Kremlin’s approach to freedoms like freedom of speech and free elections be underestimated. It has no approach. Freedom of the press and free elections don’t exist under it. Should Americans embrace such obviation of freedoms as Putin’s government does? Should our presidency rest on the assumptions that the press must only present copy with a completely positive tone all the time, and that everything else must be false because the “optics” shriek unfavorably?

Burning Doors, Belarus Free Theatre, La Mama
Belarus Free Theatre, ‘Burning Doors,’ La Mama (Nicolai Khalezin)

Most importantly, Burning Doors implies the reality that the Kremlin despises freedom for its citizens. Liberty seems even to become a swear word when protest artists are jailed for protesting tyranny. Of course the charges against artists become twisted as the Kremlin depicts artists as threats against the status quo culture. However, when no violence has been committed against citizens, and the very art itself, as in the case of the brilliant actions of Petr Pavlensky, harm only the artist, the Kremlin’s hypocrisy and lies soar to the heavens.

Currently, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller investigates the extent of Kremlin influence in the current U.S. administration. And he examines whether quid pro quos of money might have been offered in exchange for guaranteeing victory in the 2016 election. The Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors also reminds us of the importance of the U.S. sanctions against Russia for its action against the Ukraine and Crimea. In light of the current administration’s not following congressional law, made with near-unanimous bipartisanship, to enforce stronger sanctions against Russia, we must protest.

Burning Doors retains its power and majesty throughout. Clearly, the audience viscerally responded as I did, with three standing ovations. The vitality of the performers and their physical symbolism of ideas can be found in few places in our theater repertoires. With every dance step, every writhing beautiful body, every translated phrase, profound meaning arises.

This production should receive an extension because of its themes, its currency, its sheer power, its inspiration for us to uphold human dignity and the freedom of our souls in the face of injustice. Kudos go to performers, devisers, and co-creators Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau, Maryna Yurevich, and the team of artists, designers, and musicians who made this superb production possible.

This fabulous show is innovative theater at its best. At La Mama on Fourth Street in New York City, Burning Doors runs until 22 October.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs:
The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists’ Sonnets.
She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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