Theater Talkback: When Political Theater Feels Truly Dangerous


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times A scene from the Belarus Free Theater's production of "Being Harold Pinter," part of the Under the Radar Festival.

There were moments throughout the Belarus Free Theater's production of "Being Harold Pinter," part of the Under the Radar Festival in New York, when an icy shaft of awareness would pierce my thoughts. This wasn't so much because of the artistry and ingenuity of this troupe from Minsk, although that was not to be denied.

What made me catch my breath again and again was suddenly remembering that what was being portrayed on stage wasn't so different from the lives of the performers up there. "Being Harold Pinter" traces acts of violence by people in power as they appear in the plays of Pinter, especially in his later works, which are often parables of state-sanctioned torture and humiliation. And the actors before me knew all too well of such matters, some of them first-hand, from living in one of the last dictatorships in Europe.

The day before I saw "Being Harold Pinter," the Times had run a story on the intricate subterfuge required for the troupe to leave its country to arrive in this one. Its members had long been under the surveillance of the Belarussian KGB. (Even attending their performances, which had to keep shifting locations, was a surreptitious activity that could lead to arrest). And one of their managers had been incarcerated only days before the company's departure for posting on opposition Web sites accounts (in English) of government repression after protests of the presidential elections in December.

So while I had seen all the Pinter dramas that this production draws upon (in some cases, many times), I had always watched them with a certain critical detachment, pulling back to assess the artistic merits and flaws of the plays and their interpreters. Since I am by profession (and arguably by nature) a critic, I tried to bring that same perspective to "Being Harold Pinter." But then those icy shafts would come, when I'd think that the Belarus Free Theater had truly experienced what Harold Pinter had created through imagination, extrapolation and empathy - that this company was reflecting Pinter's scenes back to us as a harsh living mirror. A group of plays had been wrenched from the intellectual ether and organically, immediately linked to the world of its performers.

Aleh Sidorchyk, left, and Yana Rusakevich in a scene from "Being Harold Pinter."Sara Krulwich/The New York Times Aleh Sidorchyk, left, and Yana Rusakevich in a scene from "Being Harold Pinter."

The idea of theater as an act (and an instrument) of political defiance is a strange one these days to most Americans, for whom plays are largely thought of (if they are at all) as an occasional diversion. The rare show that makes headlines or the covers of magazines does so because it features a big-time celebrity or because it is "spectacular," which usually means obscenely expensive. (The Broadway production "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which is still in previews, has become a subject of national news both because it is expensive and also, apparently, dangerous to its performers, rather like a NASCAR racing event.)

Dramas and satires on political subjects exist, of course. But they rarely draw comparable attention and they seldom shock or rattle us. Watching "Ameriville," a home-grown protest show of song and sketches that is also part of the Under the Radar Festival, I was struck by how much of the material was familiar to me from mock-news and comedy shows on television.

Of course I am grateful to live in a country - and, particularly, to work in a city - where free artistic expression is taken for granted (as is the right to protest such expressions). But I marveled at the bravery and urgency of "Being Harold Pinter," and was trying to think of when, if ever, I'd experienced it to the same degree elsewhere. There are of course many historical precedents: Brecht's theater of protest in Weimar Germany and Athol Fugard's dramas that dared to cross and obliterate racial boundaries in apartheid-era South Africa.

There are thrilling accounts of sentiment-rousing, politically fraught Depression-era productions in New York like "Waiting for Lefty" and "The Cradle Will Rock." And in the 1960s, that most politically tumultuous of decades, taboo-shattering productions from groups like the Living Theater led to police raids and near riots. I wasn't around for those. Nor have I been on hand for in recent years, in American cities far from Manhattan, when local or school productions of plays perceived as subversive (Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" is the most prominent example) have raised a ruckus of disapproval.

So I'm asking you if you can remember instances - at home or abroad - of topical theater that seemed so disturbingly of the moment that it was truly dangerous and heroic.


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