Luminato 2018 Theatre Review – Burning Doors/Belarus Free Theatre

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Belarus Free Theatre is an ironic name, because the renown company is anything but free in their own country where they are banned. In fact, when they do manage to perform there, they have to go underground. To inform their audience, they put up fliers in university washrooms. Belarus, apparently, is the last dictatorship left in Europe. The exiled company, founded in Minsk in 2005, now calls London home.

Clearly BFT is a company of dissent, and their production Burning Doors is like a bludgeon. Their modus operandi is to weave their plays around personal stories, the more harrowing, the better. Burning Doors has been inspired by Crimean-born, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is in a Russian jail for 20 years on apparently trumped-up charges of terrorism; Russian performance artist and political activist Petr Pavlensky, infamous for sewing his mouth shut and nailing his scrotum to the pavement in Red Square in protest; and Maria Alyokhina, a member of the Russian feminist, anti-Putin, punk rock group Pussy Riot, who performs guerrilla concerts guaranteed to irritate the establishment. (The latter is actually a member of the cast). There is also a strong intellectual component with reference to the writings of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, and French poet and surrealist Paul Eluard. BFT also cites Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele as an influence. In other words, pretty heady stuff as BFT delves into questions about art and dissent, freedom and oppression, and risk-taking and punishment.

How does Burning Doors play out? Well may you ask. The production is made up of a barrage of graphic scenes that depict arrest and detention, none of it very pretty, mixed in with quoted passages from the writers. Comic relief comes in the form of conversations between two Putin apparatchiks. It is rather amusing to hear them talk about how to deal with dissidents, such as Sentsov, Pavlensky and Alyokhina, interspersed with chats about what is better, a yacht or a private jet, and the relative merits of Picasso. The set contains a steel scaffold and a back wall with three cell doors, perhaps for each of the three activists. There are also livecam projections and news videos. The thundering drumbeat score has been composed by Alexander Lyulyakin, drummer with the Ukrainian band Boombox. The play is performed in Russian with excellent surtitles on the back wall.

BFT’s artistic directorship – Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban – prefers a gritty, realistic style of delivery enhanced by imaginative details. For example, the insidiousness of incessant police questioning is conveyed in a round-robin. Each of the four women portrays a seated prisoner being verbally hounded, and then stands up and becomes the relentless interrogator of the next woman, and so it continues around the circle. Burning Doors is not for the faint of heart. The scene where a naked prisoner is humiliated by being body searched is horribly uncomfortable to watch. At various times, the cast is beaten, tortured, kicked, choked, smothered, drowned, hoisted up by their arms, or have their stomachs stood on. There is long passage, seemingly endless, where a captor flings a prisoner around like a doll by repeatedly grabbing his neck and throwing him to the ground. The eight-member cast, who helped devise the play, are clearly supermen and women. The physicality required on the part of the performers is monumental, not to mention aerial skills for those strung up.

Every time I see a performance like Burning Doors, I realize, that despite all the injustices we have in Canada, we really are living in La La Land. “Pampered” is what an acquaintance called Canadians after the show. I’m sure very few people attending Burning Doors voted for Doug Ford. Who else is going to attend a hard-hitting, brutal, explicit production like this except lefties, or conservatives with a conscious? The tragedy of Burning Doors is that it is preaching to the converted, while the human rights of a huge swath of the world’s population are being eroded away.

As an after note, Burning Doors has a couple of interesting turns. Two-thirds of the way through the production, there is an impromptu Q&A with Alyokhina, who spent two years in prison for hooliganism, for a guerrilla rock concert that Pussy Riot staged in a Moscow cathedral to protest the Orthodox church’s support for Putin. And then, at the very end of the performance, the audience was given protest banners by the cast, and we were filmed by BFT shouting “Free Sentsov!” three times. And thus, life imitates art. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Luminato Festival 2018, Burning Doors, Belarus Free Theatre, devised and performed by the company, directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Jun. 20 to 24.

Luminato 2018 Theatre Review: RIOT (THISISPOPBABY)

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The Irish theme at this year’s Luminato Festival continues with RIOT. The production is the brainchild of THISISPOPBABY (aka Jennifer Jennings & Phillip McMahon), a company that bills itself as having one foot in high art and the other in trash culture. Their mandate is to produce high-octane shows that blur the lines between circus, comedy, burlesque, dance and nightclub. Clearly Luminato programmed RIOT to attract the younger demographic, and the audience was filled with twenty and thirtysomethings out to have a good time. (The bar was kept open throughout the performance.)

So where does an old broad like me fit in with the ethos of RIOT? Not too well, I’m afraid. The format features acts that are on a loop as the 11 performers keep recycling themselves. The MC – Panti – one of Ireland’s foremost drag queens, garbled her words to an irritating degree. I’m sure there were things I could have laughed at if I could make out what she was saying. The language that I did take in, however, made me feel she wasn’t naughty enough. In other words, a pretty flat performance.

The street poetry segments performed by Kate Brennan were too long, and her three sets were way too many because she slowed down the show. Both Panti and Brennan were given rants designed to warm the cockles of liberal hearts and piss on corporate culture, while encouraging the audience to forge their own path and fuck destiny. Admittedly, I did like Brennen’s warning that the purpose of RIOT was to be a “theatre grenade“ (a phrase I plan to steal). Nonetheless, by the end of the show, these socio/political tirades had become so strident that I felt I had been hit over the head with a politically correct sledgehammer. As a mellow filler throughout the show, four singers appeared from time to time performing innocuous original pop songs composed by Alma Kelliher.

RIOT is not without its charms, however. Two acrobats (Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally) who call themselves Lords of Strut are hilarious. Their act is built upon one guy balancing in various poses upon the other. My absolutely favourite laugh-out-loud moment was when one of the Struts handed out swimming noodles to audience members, and invited them to come up on the stage and whip his cohort who was dressed as Jesus. I was surprised by the intensity of the noodle-holders as they really laid into the poor guy with gusto.

Ronan Brady who bills himself as a physical artist is a prime example of Irish beefcake. He performed his eye-catching aerial routines on a giant hoop and hanging leather straps, throwing in a clever striptease in the bargain. As each jockstrap was removed, it revealed an even skimpier one beneath, and just as it came to show-all time, Panti whistled him off the stage. Also entertaining were movement artists Up and Over It (aka Peter Harding and Suzanne Cleary) who did an eye-catching, lightning-fast, rhythmic hand-dance on a table while adding in Irish step dance with their feet below.

Even though I complain about Kate Brennan above, her middle set was an earnest rendering of street poet Emmet Kirwan’s poignant Heartache, a feminist tale about an Irish teenager who has to bring up her baby on her own. Apparently it’s quite famous and has a wide viewership on YouTube as performed by Kirwan. And finally, a very odd sequence of the show should be mentioned. As Brady performed calm and quiet manoeuvres in his giant hoop, the voiceover of an elderly man talked about problems with his iPod and Apple customer support in Bangalore. This phone call, anchored in the reality of today, leads the man to remember more innocent times when there were no dreams of iPods. It was an affecting moment even though completely out of place given the bumptious nature of RIOT.

For this show the Tanenbaum Opera Centre has been transformed into what Luminato calls the Festival Cabaret Room. Surrounding the stage are nightclub tables, with bleacher seating behind. The atmosphere is a sound and light show with pulsing music, flashing lights and colourful costumes. In fairness, I should say that the crowd gave RIOT a sort-of standing ovation, a lot of the crowd that is, but not all. I have been to spiegel tent shows such as RIOT and loved every minute of them. Unfortunately, RIOT is too much of a mixed bag to be totally successful.

 Luminato 2018, RIOT (THISISPOPBABY), created and directed by Jennifer Jennings & Phillip McMahon, Festival Cabaret Room, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Jun. 5 to 16.