It’s always nice to be present at the start of something. Natalia Pelevine’s two-hander – about the Moscow theater siege of 2002, in which 125 people died when the Russian authorities used gas to roust out Chechen terrorists holding hundreds hostage inside – marks the inaugural event for Dare to Speak Productions, “a group of women with strong views…about politics, religion and love.”
That seems the right attitude when dramatizing such a violent, tragic catastrophe, even as an inward sort of drama. And that’s what Ms. Pelevine has created.
Two women are alone amid the hurry-up-and-wait chaos of the siege. We aren’t made aware of how this seemingly unlikely situation has come about; putting the two characters together by themselves feels more like a theatrical device than a realistic setting. Natasha (Ms. Pelevine) is a bourgeois reporter and critic who has come to review that night’s play. Seda (Evgeniya Radilova) is one of the female terrorists, outfitted with a strapped-on bomb, a gun, and a seemingly seamless revolutionary zeal, as dark and complete as the niqab covering her face. “We want to die more than you want to live,” she intones.
But there’s a person inside the Chechen’s dark garb, and as fashionable Natasha chatters through her terror Seda begins to reveal herself both literally and figuratively. In the end, as fate closes in on the women, the hourlong show turns into something quite moving.
To get to that point, though, the story is squeezed through a series of developments that strain credulity. A sweet and hopeful bond forms between the two women – but I didn’t believe a moment of it. Script missteps don’t help (Natasha, pointing at Seda’s bomb: “That thing around your waist isn’t a Versace belt.”)
The moments each woman has on her own ring truer, as when Natasha talks to her little son on the phone, trying with only partial success to hold herself together, knowing he’ll likely never see his mother again. There aren’t enough moments like that; too much of the story unfolds in declamatory speeches that turn Natasha and Seda into representative types instead of real people. Their internal realizations and growing connection feel engineered.
So does the structure; most of the time the women act as if they’re alone in a room, but then they’ll shift to talking about us, the audience, as if we’re other hostages who are also present – a device that might effectively draw us further into the action, if it made better logical sense.
To be fair, this is a psychological story that doesn’t necessarily lay claim to logic, and in a way its discontinuities reflect the insane reality the women find themselves in. But to be fully effective, the play would have had to develop its characters more organically. The high drama inherent in the situation would have more impact without all the unrealistically distilled motivations. There’s power in this production, but there could have been a good deal more.
I Plead Guilty runs through May 29 at the Gene Frankel Theater, NYC.
Photo credit: Raymond Haddad