By Julia Lerner
The Belarus Free Theatre performed “Burning Doors,” their political performance based on the persecution of artists living in dictatorships, at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Oct. 26.
The theatre company worked in conjunction with Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, a contentious feminist punk-rock band from Moscow, to create a narrative “based in part on personal stories and experiences and inspired by the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Michel Foucault and Paul Eluard and the work of painter Egon Schiele,” according to projections on stage.
The show, performed entirely in Russian, depicts the graphic nature of Russian prisons and reproduces the experiences of Alyokhina, in addition to the experiences of artist Petr Pavlensky and videographer Oleg Sentsov.
Pavlensky was arrested in 2015 and is currently living with his partner and two children in France after fleeing Russian persecution in 2016. Known for his political protest through art, Pavlensky is best recognized for stitching his mouth shut, cutting off his earlobes while sitting nude on a fence and for nailing his scrotum to the ground in downtown Moscow.
In one scene of “Burning Doors,” the narrator read out Sentsov’s closing statement to the court while a young man is beaten on stage.
Sentsov remains imprisoned after being accused of setting a number of fires in Crimea. He claimed innocence in court, but said he admitted to the crimes because of the torture he experienced in prison.
“When they put a bag on your head, beat you up a bit, half an hour later you’re ready to go back on all your beliefs, implicate yourself in whatever they ask, implicate others, just to stop them beating you,” he said. I don’t know what your beliefs can possibly be worth if you are not ready to suffer or die for them.”
“Sentsov will be in jail for the next 17 years,” said one of the play organizers. “Please write him that you’re from this university and that you’re doing art, or that you’re not interested in art, and your name, your love. You will let him know that he is not alone there.”
“Burning Doors” drew on the experiences of all three artists, and showed the abuse they experienced while imprisoned. Alyokhina spoke of incredibly graphic strip searches and “naked Thursday,” where guards demanded prisoners wear nothing but their bed sheets.
“There’ll be a search now,” she said, according to the subtitled text projected on the walls. “A search inside me … they will lay me down on a bench” and use their “gloved hands” to assault her.
While Alyokhina conveys this, she is suspended from the ceiling, dangling by her hands. Other actors grab her legs and drag them open, depicting the cavity searches she experienced while in Russian prison.
While the entire show is told in Russian, English subtitles are projected on the walls so audience members can understand the stories. The show is graphic, and, at times, difficult to watch. Throughout the show, the audience sees nudity, attempted murder, people hanging by the necks, unsimulated urination and scenes of torture. They also hear stories about assault, the torture of children and contemporary politics.
During a Q&A, Alyokhina encouraged audience members to make a statement with their art. “It doesn’t matter where it is, it is important,” she said. “Art is part of politics and of course it makes a difference … any art in Hollywood or in Russia. If musicians, filmmakers, artists make a political statement, it doesn’t matter where.”
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Richspicture’s Flickr account.
Julia Lerner is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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