Insulted. Belarus(sia)

photo: Arlekin Players Theatre

Online readings are our theater's response to the covid crisis. Arlekin Players Theatre and Cherry Orchard Festival do a very fine job of it in their reading - presented on Zoom - of Insulted. Belarus(sia), a new play by Andrei Kureichik that examines the current political events in Belarus - the demonstrations and arrests following the bogus re-election of Aleksandr Lukashenko. The playwright, Andrei Kureichik, sits on the coordinating council of the protest movement. The reading was screened twice - once in Russian and once in English. I opted for the English translation.

The cast of characters is comprised of actual people and fictitious people. We find Aleksandr Lukashenko and his young son, as well as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, his losing opponent in the election and - this is well documented - the favorite of the people. In addition, there are fictitious - but no less true - characters on either side of the political divide: two election monitors (one on either candidate's side); a brutal soldier; two other demonstrators.

The play is well-suited for the medium. Nearly every line is in a monologue; there's little interaction between the characters. The actors address the camera. The video is in black-and-white, quite suitably.

The play takes place in the “first month of the Belarusian revolution on the eve of the inevitable democratization of the country after 26 years of dictatorship”. Time passes in the play, perhaps a few days before and during the election and the initial demonstrations.

Mr. Kureichik has skillfully kept the longer monologues in the first, expository act.  In the Second Act, which opens with the dictator's victory speech, the speeches are shorter and the action of the play (the demonstration, the arrests) occurs. The shorter speeches give us a sense of urgency.

The play doesn't depend on its dramatic action. It works through the powerful expression of the characters' points of view as filtered by their personalities and their politicals. Lukashenko opens the play with a tirade against the theater: “What good comes from some painted-up guy wiggling his ass on stage?” Later in the play he tells us “The people always want one thing - stability." He goes on to say “You don’t become president. You’re born president." Much credit to the playwright and the actor - he clearly believes what he's saying.

The second scene opens with a fresh-faced young woman in a white dress saying “You can change anything.” The soldier confronting the demonstrators tells us “We'll push these guys back. We will make mincemeat out of them," and "We're educating the dick brains."

Tsikhanouskaya, the politician with a larger awareness, tells us “The TV says one thing but life is completely different," and “Can we possibly make peace with such injustice?"

The most complex character is an election official who supports the dictator. “He pays our salary," she tells the election staff. She tells them how many votes each candidate will receive and says "Memorize the numbers for each candidate and put that precise number in each pile.” She says that Putin is propping up Merkel and that there is no coronavirus in Belarus - but does she really believe these things? After all, her job and pension depend on the old guard. When the election is over she sighs "I am safe."

We witness the disaster through these characters - the police abuse, the Black Maria, the cell, that white dress stained with blood. The interpersonal network that binds the fictitious characters is revealed. Most importantly, the teacher's daughter is missing, having been arrested. Talking frantically to the authorities, she says "I don’t want your pension. I don’t want your job." She, at least, learns something. As for the soldier - well, it's not clear.

The play closes with Tsikhanouskaya saying “I am the president of Belarus. What are you willing to do for love?".

The video's director, Blair Cadden, understands the form of Zoom video monologues well and she keeps the acting neither too big nor too small. Mercifully, she's eschewed special video effects. The translator, John Freedman, writes some characters in a colloquial dialect that makes the obscenities totally germaine to the characters. And much credit to the entire cast, who are, unfortunately, unnamed.

This is great political theater. But the company should know better than to tell us that the play is set "on the eve of the inevitable democratization of the country after 26 years of dictatorship." Let the play make its point without propaganda. And the promotion for the piece calls it "a staged reading". There's nothing "staged" about it.

Insulted. Belarus(sia) is the second cool Zoom video I've seen from Arlekin Players Theatre. What's next from this company?

- Steve Capra

September 2020

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