State vs Natasha Banina


photo: Mark Soucy

State vs Natasha Banina is a livestream monologue presented by The Arlekin Players Theatre. The script is based on Natasha’s Dream by the Russian playwright Yaroslava Pulinovich. The monologue is directed by Igor Golyak and performed by Darya Denisova.

The video monologue was streamed twice this month on Zoooom - once in Russian with subtitles, and once in English. Of course, I watched the Russian. I had the great advantage of not understanding the Russian, and the event was enhanced by language as intonation.

The title screen reads "State, plaintiff, versus Natasha Bernina, defendant". Then a mellow voice says, several times, "Welcome. By joining us today you have self-selected to be a part of our trial.… Court will be in session in just a moment." Then, "The live feed from the confinement will commence momentarily."

The date of the livestream is given as the date of this trial. Then, "Due to the COVID-19 pandemic you, the jury, are tasked with coming to a verdict based on the live testimony given from inside confinement. Natasha Bernina, 16, is accused of attempted manslaughter."

We, the jury, are asked to complete a 10-question survey, the most salient question being "Have you formed an opinion about Russian orphans or adoption?" Then we discover Natasha Banina in her bare "confinement", and she addresses us throughout, relating her story to great effect.

Natasha is a 16-year-old orphan who jumps out of third-story window on a dare. The resulting news story acquaints her with a journalist who pays her some minor attentions in a series of visits she makes to him. Then she stops being admitted to his office and soon she finds him kissing a girl in the park.

The unfortunate story is enhanced by the irony of our fore-knowledge. We know it will end badly. This is, after all, her trial.

Natasha's story exposes her impoverished life. The orphanage she lives in offers her not a suggestion of nurturance. "Maybe you’d like it better in reform school," the head mistress tells Natasha when the girl is non-compliant. It's no wonder that she's helpless in the face of a little attention. Her obsession is that this fellow whom she hardly knows will say "Natasha, you are the baddest damn chick on earth. Will you marry me?" And her memory of her mother is heart-breaking. We see how the abuse to which she's been subject has damaged her to the point of criminalizing her.

The presentation is heightened by video effects. The videographer plays with black-and-white versus color, for example, and there are other special effects. It's interesting to watch her draw a cigarette on the wall and then light her real cigarette from its self-lit top, and then snuff it out. And there are strictly ornamental effects as well, which are superfluous.

Indeed, Darya Denisova's bravura performance needs no ornamentation. It's splendid, mesmerizing acting. So layered is this performance that we see simultaneously Natasha's conflicting emotions - her need for attention, her enjoyment at talking to us, her embarrassment at exposing herself emotionally. She seems never to have had anyone to confide in before this trial. It's only a criminal jury that cares to listen.

Igor Golyak has directed Ms. Denisova with great understanding and sensitivity. Her stage life never rushes and never dwells on the moment. The play is never sentimental, never judgmental.

Finally the disembodied voice says "I appeal to you, the court, to review the evidence," and we, the audience/jury (we numbered more than 100, I think) vote Guilty or Not Guilty. At this performance, the poor girl was found guilty. And indeed, we learned during the talk-back that there has been only one audience/jury who acquitted her. Do the exigencies of the criminal justice system trump the needs of a child? Are we always responsible for what we do?

The play ends with the voiceover "Your jury duty is now complete. We appreciate your service. Thank you and have a wonderful day." Its impassivity is the ideal coda.

I'm pleased to report that State vs Natasha Banina is always streamed live online. Theater is something that artists and audience do together. We don't need to be together in space; we do need to be together in time.

Congratulation to The Arlekin Players Theatre for this terrific work!

Steve Capra
August, 2020

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