Something mythic — a sight to inspire fear and wonder — tears its way into existence toward the end of “Minsk, 2011,” the beautiful and brutal performance piece from the Belarus Free Theater.
Like many of the richest moments in theater, this one involves very simple elements: black ink, a long roll of brown paper and a naked woman.
Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? But you could call what happens in this sequence a joke only in the cosmic sense, as visions of retribution sometimes are. Sure, what you’re looking at is only a metaphor, but one with a visceral reality that claws at your imagination and leaves scars. An image that could be fully achieved only by live performers on a stage, it’s a fierce reminder that in art, anger can be a most fertile mother of invention.
That relationship has made the Belarus Free Theater, which is banned from performing in its own country, one of the most powerful and vividly resourceful underground companies on the planet. (I first saw the troupe in New York two years ago when it came with its dazzling “Being Harold Pinter.”) The full title of its latest production, part of the invaluable Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater, is “Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker.” LikeAcker’s book “New York City in 1979,” Minsk” is a portrait of a metropolis as defined by its sex life.
Sex, as is observed several times in this production (performed with supertitles), is not the same as sexy. Certainly sexy is hardly the word for the scene I referred to above, although its central figure is a beautiful nude (Yana Rusakevich).
In a monologue written by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, the company’s co-artistic directors, Ms. Rusakevich describes a teenager’s memory of being arrested, abused and fingerprinted by the state police. As she speaks, male performers cover her body with ink and then press her onto a long swath of paper on the floor. The paper is then wrapped tightly around her into a head-to-toe chrysalis.
As the woman continues to speak, her head tears through the paper cocoon. She looks blank and dangerous. She has a whip in her hand, and she roves the stage in a rudderless rage. “Hear the whip crack, and start to understand,” she says. “That girl. She’s grown up. Minsk is right there!”
In both its poetry and harshness this birth of a monster, gestated by violence and repression, is perhaps the most extreme scene in “Minsk,” but not by much. Conceived and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, the production offers a jagged mosaic of vignettes that portray a world in which violence enforces silence, and sex and pleasure are seldom synonymous.
That landscape is summoned into existence through journalistic narratives, first-person testimonies, jazzlike riffs of monologues, catalogs of statistics, and ensemble set pieces that include a vivacious treatise on the naming and consumption of rotgut wine and a harrowing re-enactment of a subway bombing.
Video footage is occasionally projected. But mostly our sense of place comes from words, movement and the artful deployment of props as rudimentary as balloons, plastic chairs, a red runner rug and three bags of sugar. By the end you’re likely to feel that a map of Minsk is tattooed onto your brain, as specific as James Joyce’s Dublin, and not just its squares and streets and clubs and prisons.
You’ll also feel the throb of the body of water that runs beneath the city, the Nemiga River, which, we are told, “is a ghost river, not shown on any map”; it was channeled into pipes underground in the middle of the 20th century. And this sense of a vital force, dangerously thwarted and mechanized, courses throughout the show.
Three abject, huddled women throw off their robes to strut their stuff for a government inspector in a strip club, before collapsing again, like run-down windup dolls. A nocturnal gay Brigadoon of a sex club (a workers’ canteen by day) erupts into fleeting life in a joyless orgasmic frenzy.
A student with dreams of becoming a stripper starves herself into anorexia after a bruising encounter with two men she has met on the Internet. A friendly setup for casual sex between a man and a woman never gets very far. She loses interest after he describes being beaten up on a train and then having an oddly reassuring epiphany inspired by the sight of a smiling rat in a deserted lot.
A rat? Hey, if you’re looking for favorable omens in a hope-stripped landscape, you work with what’s at hand, don’t you? And as bleak as the life described here is, “Minsk” is also steeped in an uncommon lyricism and in the hope that lies in the transformative powers of art.
Poetry shows up in the damnedest shapes and places, as when a team of imprisoned prostitutes is released to help clean up an unexpectedly heavy snowfall, and we see them as joyously, liberatingly airborne. I first saw “Minsk” last summer in London, and as both agitprop and art, in which the political becomes personal and vice versa, it has only melded and strengthened.
When in the final scene the members of the ensemble speak directly and quietly to the audience about their feelings about their city, the emotions are profoundly mixed. There’s resentment, fear and rage, yes, but also a sense that they ineffably belong to this conflicted, unhappy place.
One actor, Aleh Sidorchyk, a political refugee living in London, talks about his calls to his mother, who is still in Minsk and has Alzheimer’s. “She thinks I still live there,” he says. “Actually, that’s not it. She doesn’t think I’m living there. My mum knows the truth. I amstill there.”
Ben Brantley, The New York Times