From Under the Radar Fest in NYC: Belarus Free Theater & Reggie Watts

By Jeremy M. Barker

January is a crazy time for performance in NYC because of the annual APAP Conference. With performing arts presenters from around the world in town, every theatre becomes a showcase trying to sell contemporary dance and experimental theatre to the curators who bring it to far-flung cities. I'm covering the scene for in NYC, and kicked it off last night with two shows opening up the Under the Radar Festival: Minsk-based dissident theatre troupe Belarus Free Theatre, and Reggie Watts' new collaboration with playwright Tommy Smith and, as it turns out, The Stranger's own theatre critic, Brendan Kiley.

Belarus Free Theater: BFT has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years, reaching fever-pitch just last month when members of the company were arrested by the KGB in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for protesting the fraudulent re-election of Alexsandr Lukashenko. They've since been released, and, having sneaked out of the country, are being toasted in NYC. As well they should. But all this makes writing about Being Harold Pinter somewhat difficult. Who am I--or anyone else, for that matter--to question or nitpick the work of a company who risks their lives to make their work? And just so it be said up front, I did like the show.

But they are a fascinating case study in the marketplace for contemporary performance, which is a really a global market for avant-garde and experimental work. Normally, the artists and companies who succeed in touring the festivals in North America and Europe are extremely cosmopolitan in their aesthetic and approach; they have transnational appeal and approachability in different cultural contexts, often at the expense of creating work that dives deep into their own cultural and political situation.

And this in turn has always bothered me, because in the end, all performance is local. For as much as video and the Internet connects us, live performance still largely relies on the immediacy of experience, so evaluating work in a global context seems, to a degree, elitist. You can only do it if you're one of a small group of people with the interest and wherewithal to travel around to experience the work live, which can't help but skew perspective. For instance, when I was at PICA's TBA Festival in September, a New York writer whose work I respect criticized a performance by a Northwest artist as derivative, largely of the Wooster Group. As a writer originally from the Northwest, the absurdity of the criticism was glaring (and I mean no offense): the Wooster Group hadn't been to the Northwest in something like 20 years [note: apparently they actually appeared at On the Boards in 2002; that means as many as 1,200 people saw them perform in the Northwest just eight years age]. Virtually no one in the audience would have had that perspective, so to what degree is it relevant? Only insofar as it's a determination of how competitive the artist is in a national or global context, how salable the work is in Chicago, New York, London.

As someone who loves art mostly for how it communicates its content, it seemed a backwards way of looking at it to me: the question isn't how novel or original the presentation, but how effective the techniques employed communicate ideas, and whether those ideas--or the information gleaned from the process of applying those techniques to the development of a piece--are worth the audience's consideration.

Belarus Free Theater's "Being Harold Pinter". Photo by Aleksandr Paskannoi

And that's why one of the first things I found really fascinating about Being Harold Pinter was the way it employed Pinter's work. The piece is a palimpsest of fragments of Pinter's essays and speeches (beginning with the story of how he almost died the day he was named Nobel Prize laureate) and leading into his thoughts on politics and how he developed his plays. Pinter acknowledged from the moment he won the prize in literature that it was in part a political decision--he had a long history of excoriating the Bush administration's warmongering, and rather than wringing his hands about winning a literary prize for his political beliefs rather than his writing (or at least the implication of such coloring the award), he simply used the platform the prize's notoriety gave him to expand his sharp-tongued criticisms through the global press.

So Belarus Free Theater has taken his writings and speeches about how he structured and developed his plays with a mind to illuminating their political content, and used this as a mirror on their own society, trapped, as it is, in the glory days of the Iron Curtain, pre-glasnost, pre-perestroika. Or rather, a broken mirror, an image Pinter himself invoked to explain how his sometimes obscure and elusive plays, once dubbed the "theater of menace" for rarely revealing what, exactly, is bearing down on their oppressed characters, tackle very real political ideas. "Truth," after all, is a difficult thing to get down to, in an era of echo chambers, talking heads, and the like.

There's an analog between western, mediated postmodernity and Soviet-style control states that's existed for a long time. As the Russian postmodernist Mikhail Epstein once told me, the "simulacrum" flourished in communist states long before it became the sine qua non of late capitalist societies, starting in the 1930s when the Leninist/Stalinist experiment in controlled economy was a complete failure, leading to the starvation of millions in places like Ukraine, while newspaper and media and other organs of the state reported completely false, rose-hued stories of glowing Communist success.

All of which is to say that it was fascinating to see Pinter re-contextualized by a Belarussian theater company. Pinter's plays have always seemed to me to be rather abstract, sometimes even academic. While everyone was probably taught in college theatre lit classes about how Pinter's experience of victimization by British fascists in the Thirties influenced his decision to include faceless, nameless menaces in plays like The Birthday Party, I've still largely viewed him through the abstract lens of Absurdism, a Beckett or Ionesco with more verisimilitude (at least in regards to his earlier works).

But BFT sees something rather different in his plays: their tales of viciousness and random brutality become a perfectly realistic depiction of life in a police state, even the depersonalization of his characters (whose names and backstories are often never explicated) a representation of the perversity that comes to pervade a society asked to inform on and police itself for the benefit--as one of the characters in the play says, once the text has moved on from Pinter's works to transcripts of interviews with Belarussian victims of state brutality--"of one man." (I was reminded again and again throughout the performance of Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind, the sort of Cold War studies text that no one reads anymore.)

It's also fascinating to see a company whose experimental, devised play is so attached to the ideas of its source texts. In the west, most experimental companies seem to have taken Artaud's opposition to the text to heart: at best, it's a starting place, a point of reference, and likely one to be attacked, criticized, deconstructed, or just plain ignored post-invocation. It's part of the problem of liberal democracies: as Stanley Fish has argued, societies that tolerate almost any speech in the name of "free speech" wind up devaluing speech altogether. However, in non-free societies...well, as another old college professor of mine rather avuncularly put it, "The police are always the best readers."

Still, for all that, what was most affecting to me was when the company reached the point of simply telling stories of what happened to protesters in 2005, the last presidential election. The "colored" revolutions were sweeping the post-Soviet states, promising to liberate (with ultimately mixed success) countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. In Belarus, the color became denim, when authorities confiscated the national flags and other patriotic symbols from protesters camped out in the central square of Minsk. For a brief moment, it looked as if Belarus might finally free itself, going down the same road as Ukraine, whose Orange Revolution had followed the same tactics. But what followed was brutal suppression, disappearances, and, in the most unaffected and impacting moment of Being Harold Pinter, gang-rape as a tool of state.

Reggie Watts: Needless to say, after something that heavy, I needed a cocktail to soothe the nerves, and while I never actually scored one, Reggie Watts' video intensive Dutch A/V served well enough (with the one complaint up front that it was too damn short--I could have watched and listened to these guys for twice as long, easily).

The best description of the show I can give is summed up by a comment I heard from someone walking out: "I wish I could get paid to go talk about the crap I do!" The crap they do really is the subject of the show, which, like the previous collaboration between comedian/musician Watts and playwright/director Tommy Smith I saw, seems to meander aimlessly around what it wants to do without ever falling apart, and propelled forward by one of the oddest and most distinctive senses of humor I've yet experienced. A large part of the show is video taken with hidden cameras installed in pairs of eyeglasses. Watts, Smith, and Seattle theatre critic Brendan Kiley all wore them and spent a day wandering around Amsterdam, engaging in a series of random experiments (all taking turns wandering in to stores asking if a non-existent party was taking place there) or, as Kiley explains in his lengthy introductory text, which comes with the program, trying to spend 20 minutes staring at a prostitute in the red light district without getting beat up by the whorehouse bouncers.

The video is projected on a scrim, with Watts, Kiley, and actor-musician Caitlin McDonough-Thayer performing behind it. And indeed, the subject really is the crap these people do: particularly the really crazy crap. Watts opens the piece with a long monologue about something he did as a teenager growing up in Great Falls, Montana, when he and some friends Robo-fried, stole fire extinguishers, and decided to screw with jackasses from the Air Force base. Kiley in turn recalls how one night he got drunk with his brother in his Capitol Hill apartment and decided it would be a good idea to try to jump out his third-story window onto a bus below (I know the parking lot he's talking about; I've always been tempted to, but never been given the chance, thank God).

So plaudits all around. Watts was of course an amazing MC, despite doing less of his beat-box live-mixing act than I initially expected. He really is one of the most crazy talented people I've ever had the chance to meet, albeit briefly. McDonough-Thayer has a beautiful voice, which was the main thing she was called on to use. And finally, I was chuckling throughout watching Kiley perform. How many times does a critic get an irate (and usually drunk because otherwise they know better) actor who's received a bad review demanding he get off his ass and try to do it himself? Sadly, for all those wronged, Kiley does a better-than-passable job. Perhaps he got some performance tips from his co-editor at The Stranger David Schmader, who's made a side-career of analyzing movies as a monologue performance, most famously Showgirls.


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