The Belarus Free Theatre hails from a country where it’s dangerous to say much of anything—and now that they’re here, they have a lot to say. Acting as theatrical emissaries from one of Europe’s harshest corners, the company presents a searing indictment of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime. Their trio of testimonial plays—Being Harold Pinter, Zone of Silence, and Discover Love (co-produced by the Public and La Mama, running in rep at La MaMa) achieve varying levels of theatrical finesse. But all three bring stark urgency—supported by the ensemble’s fierce performances—to the task of tirelessly reporting on the country they’ve temporarily left behind.
In his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Harold Pinter meditated on language’s unsettling ambiguities—its ability to simultaneously describe and mask reality. These observations drive Being Harold Pinter, a nightmarish concoction combining text from Pinter’s speech, scenes from his politically suggestive dramas—The Homecoming, One for the Road, Mountain Language—and testimony from Belarusian political prisoners.
Adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, Being Harold Pinter stages language’s complicity in authoritarian regimes: interrogators relish extravagant euphemisms, seemingly innocuous conversations are loaded with danger. Graphic torture sequences accompany the Pinter scenes (one features a terrifying castration-by-burning-marshmallow). When the cast relates Belarusians’ testimony, by contrast, the stage is eerily calm. Performers speak in darkness, their faces lit by flashlights—lending their own language the gravity of recently experienced truth.
Zone of Silence describes the territory devastated by Chernobyl, much of it Belarusian—and, by implication, the whole suppression-stifled country. This production, also directed by Shcherban, presents a panoramic view of the troupe’s homeland (and a sprawling one, at two and a half hours; fewer disturbing tales might have been disturbing enough).
The play begins with childhood stories, many revealing shades of authoritarianism in daily life: One girl must stand naked in a boys’ dormitory as punishment for misbehavior; another is forcibly removed from her adoptive Italian family and repatriated. Folk songs, dances, and striking stage images punctuate the narrative: At one point, a makeshift newspaper puppet—the orphan, back in Belarus—flings itself despairingly at a “window” sketched in chalk.
Later, Zone becomes a cascade of projected statistics—from the dismaying (“72% of Belarusians find it difficult to define the word democracy”) to the darkly funny: 242 Belarusian cows recently trampled an electric fence on the country’s border, in their apparent desperation to escape to Poland.
Zone, too, concludes in darkness. Atop a hastily taped-together metal column, a red light flashes desperately, the only thing visible—a concise image for an entire country in a state of emergency.
Discover Love, written and directed by Nikolai Khalezin, is the least theatrically complex of the three pieces, though its story, based on real events, is no less compelling. Two performers recount the history of a happy marriage: their impromptu wedding, their hard-won prosperity, their unfading intimacy. Then, one ordinary day, the husband is abducted and murdered for his support of the country’s democracy movement.
This reversal would wrench harder if Discover Love didn’t veer into a recitation of international statistics on disappearances, comparing Belarus to Latin America’s dirty wars. These connections are already apparent, and unlike in Zone of Silence, data doesn’t expand the story in unexpected ways.
Even here, though, simple actions suggest unimaginably brutal realities. After his big scene, the husband’s killer slips off his black ski mask and casually walks offstage—just another day in a country where staging terror is a daily routine.