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Flash Festival Review, 1-14: Witness
From Belarus, a tribute to Harold Pinter, a debt to the victims, and an adieu to Ellen Stewart

Belarus Free Theatre in "Being Harold Pinter." Photo copyright Aleksandr Paskannoi.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- In his 2005 work "Puur," which I caught in Paris that year, the Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus promised "an act of resistance in the face of the violence of the world." In fact he did little more than replicate it -- including acts of barbarism against children -- on film, as live dancers writhed about on stage. The film was simply repulsive, the dancers simply not believable; what did they know about torture? And where was the resistance, let alone the tools for resistance, or even proposed mechanisms for coping with such violence? If I'd known the work then, I might have thought of what Devlin says in Harold Pinter's two-person play "Ashes to Ashes": "What authority do you think you yourself possess which would give you the right to discuss such an atrocity?" In the same play, the character Rebecca responds: "I have no such authority. Nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing has ever happened to any of my friends. I have never suffered. Nor have my friends."

By contrast, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre, who last night performed "Being Harold Pinter" at La MaMa, where it continues through Sunday with an added show Monday at the Public Theater, have authority, authenticity, and even Harold Pinter, a melange of whose plays, notably "Ashes to Ashes" -- as well as his 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance lecture -- they mash up with real testimony from survivors of repression in Belarus, one of the last remaining Soviet-style dictatorships in the former Soviet Union. The work is also a testament to Pinter's authenticity in that sometimes it's difficult to tell which sections and text come from his plays and which come from the reality of the country the performers had to literally escape from just to get to New York and present the piece, part of the Under the Radar festival. That they knew they had a venue which would attract an audience which would make their escape worth it is also a tribute to Ellen Stewart, who founded La MaMa 50 years ago and whose demise the night before, at the age of 91, was announced on stage last night prior to the performance.

If the bulk of the Pinter material is comprised by "Ashes to Ashes," the play which most clearly reflected the real-life situation of the performers and their compatriots seemed to me to be "One for the Road," in which a priest leads the taunting and torturing, rape, and murder of, respectively, a man, his wife, and their six-year-old son, whose crime is that he spat on a soldier of the repressive regime. While my companion of last night disagreed, pointing out that there are lots of good actors who could also make this believable, in my opinion because these actors have directly known torturer priests allied with totalitarian regimes and other torturers who kill by pretended kindness, they didn't overplay "One for the Road." The priest really seemed to think he was empathetic, really seemed to believe in the political leader and his direct relationship with G-d, and even honestly took umbrage at and believed he was making a good case for the unacceptability of the child's behavior. By the time it came to the point where he proceeds from mental to real physical torture -- stripping the man naked and burning his balls -- the brutality didn't seem gratuitous, but devastatingly credible, the performance horrifically invested.

The manner in which the real eye-witness accounts from Belarus were communicated, though, should really be required watching for any choreographer or playwright who would pretend to portray torture and repression. They were not acted out at all. The lights were simply dimmed, the testimonies recited in Russian (as was the whole play) by the actors and projected in English on a screen above and at the rear of the stage. And, in contrast to the delivery of Pinter's lines -- which sometimes bordered on hyper-acting -- the voices here were subdued, the testimony simply stated, so that the effect was one of respect, the actors simply serving as the mechanism for delivering this testimony from their compatriots rather than seeming to exploit it for dramatic ends.

Ironically, the reality, or at least this reality, is less gruesome than that depicted in the Pinter plays that share its stage space and dissect the drama. Much of the record centers around a demonstration and the police repression that ensues. Policemen threaten to take the protesters to a clearing and execute them, raping the women beforehand, but in fact, 'all' that happens -- the 'all' here being relative' -- is that they are made to stand up for nine hours and put in cramped cells, the worse extreme being an 80-year-old man made to stand, but his story is also the most inspiring, as he tells his tormentors that after the fascists he stood up to during WW II, they are "nothing."

Conversely, that the company's producers, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, and the director and adapter, Vladimir Scherban, have incorporated the Pinter also verifies and legitimizes his authority to address this subject. (Just as the liberal extracts from his Nobel lecture validate, if any validation was needed, that Pinter's introducing 'politics' into the speech was not only appropriate, but necessary.) It's an endorsement from the source, and an encouragement that drama can matter. And that spaces that cultivate drama are crucial. After the show last night, I walked home along Broadway. When I got to 42nd Street, 'round midnight, it really sunk in that Times Square, once the heartbeat of theater that mattered, has become a giant commercial, a living actualization of the de-humanizing future forecast in the opening scene of "Bladerunner," Ridley Scott's film of the Philip K. Dick novel. In this context, The Theater along the Great White Way seems to offer little more than high-priced distraction and diversion from real-world devastation. No home for accounts of torture, real or dramatized, here. All the more reason to prize La MaMa, and all the more reason "Being Harold Pinter" is a fitting send-off for Ellen Stewart and an homage to her vital achievement and legacy.

"Being Harold Pinter" was interpreted by Nikolai Khalezin, Pavel Haranidski, Yana Rusakevich, Aleh Sidorchyk, Irene Iarochevitch, Dzianis Tarasenka, and Maryna Yurevich.

While the opinions expressed above are mine alone, I'd like to thank Martin Epstein for his insight into Harold Pinter.

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