Monday, January 31, 2011


Politics in American theatre is an iffy subject. If you take a long hard look at the performances you have seen, been a part of, or read about, you will probably find very little, if any, topical political material in that repertoire. The major exception, or course, being satire (the likes of Second City), which takes a humorous, "let's laugh at ourselves!" look at current events - but nothing too heavy.

No, Americans do not like to seriously evaluate their actions onstage or in films until long after the repercussions have been felt. Retrospective representations of past presidents and other important politicians are frequently lauded for their nuanced accuracy and subtle parallels to today. But don't go touching living figures...

Lucy Preble's Enron, a massive hit in London's West End, opened and closed last year on Broadway after a measly sixteen performances - simultaneously surprising and disappointing many theatre-goers. Some critics and audience members decried the work as 'anti-American' - as if the crimes of Kenneth Lay and other Enron executives were justifiable and right.

To witness respected, topical political theatre in the United States is a rare and exciting opportunity. Chicago audiences are fortunate enough to have that opportunity for the month of February thanks to The Goodman Theatre, Northwestern University, The League of Chicago Theatres, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. These theatrical powerhouses have combined forces to bring Belarus Free Theatre's production of Being Harold Pinter to Chicago.

In December, BFT secretly left their homeland of Belarus to perform Being Harold Pinter at The Public Theatre's Under The Radar Festival in New York City - escaping persecution and possible imprisonment. After their well received run finished in New York, the ensemble's only options were to find work or go home. Luckily for these artists (and audiences), Chicago has taken them in temporarily as they await their next engagement in Hong Kong.

A company at risk of being put in jail, assaulted, denied employment, and having their homes and the homes of their loved ones raided by the KBG -and all for persuing their art.

But they still do it. They must do it. And what occurs onstage is theatre at its most raw, gutteral, and honest.

Now, admittedly, the performance began slowly for me. There is a language barrier (with the actors speaking in Belarusian and Russian with English subtitles projected behind them) that takes time to adapt to, but the company understands that. The most poignant moments take shape later in the play with scenes from Mountain Language and One For The Road intertwined with first hand accounts of actual Belarusian political prisoners. These scenes were terribly difficult to watch as the actors' unfortunate insight into political oppression was obvious. The performance also includes snippets from other Pinter plays like The Homecoming, Old Times, Ashes To Ashes, and New World Order as well as Pinter's Nobel Prize Lecture. From all parties, the acting is quite fine and the ensemble is crisp - but this performance involves something much greater than what is simply presented in front of us, or how we feel about the characters.

In this extremely unique theatre environment, the audience's attitudes towards the fictional people in Pinter's plays and the very real actors onstage - become one - and the compassionate tension felt throughout the room is electric. Sections involving horrific torture gained incredible poignance, and for BFT to share their true life experiences with us is remarkably brave.

Audiences used to only attending the 'big three' (The Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Chicago Shakespeare) might also find themselves somewhat taken aback by the groups' ample use of simple stylized elements (common in European theatre) like the ethereal sound of several crystal glasses ringing at once, each actor's right hand drenched in stark red blood, or the sight of seven people trapped under a translucent plastic tarp, effortfully banging - trying to escape.

These grotesqueyly beautiful images resonate strongly within us, and contain power that words alone cannot achieve. During these scenes, there is no need to keep one eye glued to the subtitle screen - because you know, in your heart, exactly what is going on.

I did not come to the theatre as a Pinter scholar, and I did not leave it as such - so for those of you who are only lightly familiar with his plays, or perhaps not at all familiar, be not afeared. Being Harold Pinter, while most definitely an exploration of the life and work of Pinter, is much more a celebration of humanity - the forces that bring us together, the evil that rips us apart, and the artist's central role in interpreting the human experience.-Johnny Oleksinski

Being Harold Pinter continues performances in Chicago at Northwestern University’s Struble Theatre on February 4-13 and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on February 18-20.