“Our focus is on social justice, taboo zones and violation of human rights across the globe,” is from the mission statement of the United Kingdom based Belarus Free Theatre who devised the piece.
The cast features Maria Alyokhina who as a member of the Moscow based feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot was imprisoned for political dissidence. Ms. Alyokhina’s fierce performance and magnetic presence adds engaging authenticity.
The production is made up of short scenes, vignettes, and dance sequences accompanied by multimedia elements. Running one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission its pacing periodically lags. It’s uneven in totality but there are quite compelling portions.
Nicolai Khalezin wrote Burning Doors with dramaturgy by him and Natalia Kaliada. Their aim is to bring attention to currently jailed artists Petr Pavlensky and Oleg Sentsov by weaving in their testimonies. Actors also proclaim from the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Michel Foucault. Fleeting and sometimes sly allusions to Putin are laced in.
The physical and psychological brutality of prison life is shown through stylization. There’s a chilling sequence with ropes and pulleys used to contain a performer who is then hurled around into the air.
Satirical asides have two Russian government officials discussing lavish purchases of apartments, yachts and jets. They also debate freeing political prisoners after Paul McCartney and Madonna have gotten involved. One of these dialogues takes place in a bathroom while they’re sitting on toilets.
Perhaps there is symbolism involved in the several instances of male nudity. An actor wearing only a riot helmet chases and attacks a protestor, a nude actor gets up from a bathtub after dunking a woman to point of drowning, and another naked actor changes into a judge’s robe. Everyone is in great shape.
In addition to Ms. Alyokhina who also contributed to the writing, the fearless and dynamic ensemble and co-creators includes Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau and Marnya Yurevich.
They’re all costumed in appropriate street clothes as well as basic dancewear.
Mr. Khalezin’s precise direction and Bridget Fiske and Maryia Sazonava’s vigorous choreography result in often arresting stage pictures. Several dance numbers are quite captivating and displays of simulated violence are thrilling.
The predominantly gray scenic design by Khalezin is a clever assembly of components such as steel ramps, and ropes representing different locales realistically and abstractly that fluidly change from scene to scene. Three doors with numbers on them that startlingly indicate jail cells and are often on view.
Joshua Pharo’s shimmering projection design is a mostly black and white assortment of striking clips conveying authoritarianism and desolation with grim cityscapes and gloomy imagery. Mr. Pharo’s lighting design joltingly veers from starkness to moody gradations of dimness.
Composer Alexander Lyulakin’s original score with Richard Hammarton’s additional music atmospherically complements the production with it’s throbbing tones and thudding sonic qualities. Mr. Hammarton’s sound design forcefully renders the music and other integral effects.
There is a lively contrivance an hour into the show as it comes to a halt and the house lights come up. Alyokhina and a male cast member who been together in a scene are on stage. There is an announcement (later revealed as part of the play) that Alyokhina has to leave to attend an event and will now be taking be questions from actual audience members. This lasts for 10 minutes and the performance resumes with another performer continuing in her role. It is a jarring interlude that adds to the show’s uniqueness and immediacy.
Burning Doors is a fitfully effective work of agitprop for a noble cause that’s stimulating, though imperfectly realized.
Burning Doors (through October 22, 2017)
Belarus Free Theatre
Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, 66 East 4 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.lamama.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission