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Banned in Belarus, but the Shows Go On

The New Your Times, by  Ben Brantley

MINSK, BELARUS — The tidy and anonymous room, which is entered through a fenced courtyard in a sleepy residential neighborhood of this Eastern European city, is not large. It was once a garage, just big enough to accommodate a few sedans or, in this case, the closely clustered group of about 50 that has assembled on a full-moon night in late August.

But the distances of space and time being crossed in this small room are great. It feels appropriate that the audience members have been advised to bring their passports. Never mind that this is on the off chance — as has happened to other audiences — they might be arrested by the Belarussian K.G.B., which still operates under that name in this former Soviet republic. What is being celebrated is the license to travel, if only through a defiant imagination.

The occasion is the opening night of the 11th season of the Belarus Free Theater, a troupe that has never been authorized by the national government and is thus officially not allowed to perform in its homeland, which has been a dictatorship in all but name sinceAleksandr Lukashenko became its president in 1994. As usual, its threeexiled founders and artistic directors — Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada and Vladimir Shcherban — are on hand to welcome theatergoers, live though not in person.

“We are so glad to see you!” said Ms. Koliada (in Russian), who is seated next to Mr. Khalezin, her husband. The couple — who have been living in London since they fled Belarus in 2011, after Ms. Koliada’s arrest for protesting Mr. Lukashenko’s re-election — is appearing via Skype on a red-framed, standard-size computer tablet.

The device is held by a member of the company, Victoria Biran, who stands in profile with a wryly respectful expression that acknowledges and absorbs the everyday surrealism in which this troupe exists. The doll-size, two-dimensional forms of Ms. Koliada and Mr. Khalezin wave to the audience; the audience waves back.

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Actresses preparing for a training session in the rented former garage.

Chic Support, Visceral Power

Ironies, funny and sad, are elemental to this company, a troupe for which theater is as much an act of political engagement as an art, filled with risks that Western performers rarely face. The show being staged tonight — as always, free of charge to the audience — is the same play with which the company began its life 10 years ago. That was in 2005 in a bar called Graffiti, where the show had moved after being shut down during rehearsals at the state-subsidized theater where Mr. Shcherban was then working.

Sarah Kane’s “4:48 Psychosis” is a harrowing portrait of an outlaw artist who kills herself (as Ms. Kane did shortly after completing it), and its depiction of depression and suicide was deemed unsuitable for Belarussian audiences by state censors. Mr. Shcherban, its director then and now, who is seen on Skype after Ms. Koliada and Mr. Khalezin sign off, tells the audience in the garage that this play — as a study in the pain experienced by outsiders — has reverberated like “a tuning fork” in his life and work.

Yet the outlaw troupe he helped create has not only improbably survived but also grown into the world’s most visible and lionized underground theater. The company has toured extensively in Europe, Australia and the United States. (These trips are subsidized by foreign individuals and institutional grants.) It has been the subject of an HBO documentary and championed by the likes of the former Czech president and dramatist Vaclav Havel, and the Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard; and by Mick Jagger and Jude Law.

In London, in particular, the troupe seems wreathed in an intoxicating perfume of radical chic. Ms. Koliada is a master at promoting her companyvia social media and persuasive direct engagement with the culturally influential, and she and Mr. Khalezin tend to drop names that echo. (Mr. Stoppard is always “Tom.”) But there is no denying that the company they lead has a visceral power, a thrilling necessity-born inventiveness and an urgent topicality that is rare in theater today.

The 10th anniversary of the Belarus Free Theater is being celebrated this fall in London with a series of performances under the title “Staging a Revolution.” First comes a concert in Camden, “I’m With the Banned,” on Sunday, Oct. 18, with performances by blacklisted music groups from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (including Pussy Riot).

Starting Nov. 2, the Free Theater will present 10 plays in London that encompass its 10 years of existence. Several of these will be staged at theYoung Vic Theater, where the troupe has been a resident company for four years. Others will be performed in undisclosed locations, to be revealed at the last minute. The idea is to replicate the conditions under which the Belarus Free Theater performs in Minsk. Of course, seeing the company in London won’t be quite the same as seeing it in its hometown, where theatergoing is a potentially imprisonable offense.

Ms. Koliada, a small and infectiously alert woman whose habitual expression combines anxiety with amusement, recently recalled a night in 2007, in a shabby house in a Minsk suburb that was at that time the group’s base theater. Officially, what was happening there was a wedding celebration (a ruse Ms. Koliada says they had borrowed from Mr. Havel, from his days as an underground theater creator), and there was Champagne in the refrigerator to prove it.

But it was really just another night at the theater, Free Theater style. The play was Edward Bond’s “Eleven Vests,” a portrait of rebellion against institutional authority, and the audience assumed it was just part of the show when an unknown, unsmiling figure stepped into view, joined by a squad of men in uniform. Then the announcement came: “You are all under arrest.” And performers and audience were herded into vans and driven to a government detention center, to be held for about six hours.

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An audience listening to the troupe’s artistic directors — Nicolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada and Vladimir Shcherban — via Skype before a show.

A Good Season for Provocation

Ms. Koliada related this story one afternoon in London, the day before I left for my first visit to Minsk, a city I was scarcely aware of before I started seeing the Belarus Free Theater’s work at New York City in 2011 (with a knockout production called “Being Harold Pinter,” which combined depictions of violence from that playwright’s work with documentary accounts of Belarussian lives warped by state and domestic brutality). I now had my visa, which to all our surprise, had been acquired with no complications beyond the usual red tape.

Ms. Koliada was accompanied by Mr. Shcherban and her uncannily self-possessed 16-year-old daughter (and our translator), Daniella. They had just returned from a residency in Falmouth, England, where the theater, which now comprises about 50 people, was rehearsing the plays for its new seasons. Mr. Khalezin had stayed home, Ms. Koliada said, because he was suffering from one of the panic attacks that sporadically descend upon him since his two-week incarceration for political dissidence in 2002.

It was an auspicious moment for me to visit Minsk, I was told. Presidential elections were being held in October. There was little doubt that Mr. Lukashenko would once again be victorious, as he indeed turned out to be. Still, it was a time when the government would be anxious not to receive the sort of unfavorable publicity that might result from its cracking down once again on a small, internationally celebrated renegade theater company.

Central Minsk — where I stayed, on Karl Marx Street (home, I was amused to note, to an upscale Canali boutique) — offers stately views of open squares, colonnaded buildings and wide boulevards that stretch past the vanishing point of the flat horizon. Nearly all of it was rebuilt after World War II, when it was reduced to rubble, and its architecture is in the ceremonial Stalinist style of the mid-20th century. The K.G.B. headquarters, as grand and opaque as a royal mausoleum, looms centrally over Minsk’s main artery, Independence Avenue.

It is not a cozy city, but it is an uncommonly clean and uniform one. Though there are casinos along the streets, catering largely to rich tourists from Moscow, after sundown Minsk retreats behind thick walls and closed doors, and you can walk for blocks without encountering another person. This is not a place to wear your private face in public. I was told that I could immediately be identified as a nonresident because I smiled too much.

“Just because it’s clean outside doesn’t mean that people don’t live with garbage,” said Svetlana Sugako, a laconic young woman with a vigilant air and a slow, warming grin. Ms. Sugako has been with the theater almost since its inception, since she saw an early performance of “Psychosis” at Graffiti and knew immediately, despite never having cared much about theater, that she wanted to work with the people who had put on this play.

Ms. Sugako and Nadia Brodskaya, her live-in partner, oversee the company’s operations in Minsk. I spent much of my time in Minsk with them and Ms. Biran, along with a dashing, gender-straddling London-based Belarussian translator, Sasha Padziarei, and several students from the Fortinbras Studio, the theater’s training program for prospective members. (Many of them hold down second jobs, though finding work as a member of the troupe is tricky in a country where a majority of jobs are state subsidized.)

They are a drolly serious, industrious, multifunctional team, collectively serving as the box office, press office, security and technical crew. They spend much of the day on cellphones, confirming reservations for performances (which are made through social media) and picking up or exchanging the small brown paper parcels that contain props and costumes for the next shows.

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Jana Rusakevich in “4.48 Psychosis.” The image on screen is from a performance of the same play 10 years earlier.

I was having lunch with the puckish, blunt-spoken Ms. Biran (she told me I wasn’t “as boring as I expected”) in a popular, immense cafeteria that looked like a hunting lodge when her phone rang. “Well,” she said, as she hung up, “there are no fresh strawberries.” I assumed she meant for dinner; it turned out I was mistaken.

The Path to a Performance

Getting to see a production from the Belarus Free Theater is high drama in itself. To arrive at the garage where “Psychosis” was staged, Ms. Biran and I took a subway, changing trains once, and then a bus. We walked to a mini-supermarket, before which a crowd had assembled, trying not to look like a crowd. Its members — who resembled the kind of spiffily dressed-down types you might find at a Brooklyn art opening — were escorted in groups of three or four up another street and into a courtyard.

The show that awaited us was, to put it mildly, intense. Despite being in Russian, which I do not speak, this “Psychosis” was the most disturbingly raw and implicating of the several versions I have seen. Two actresses, Jana Rusakevich and Maryia Sazonava, performed Ms. Kane’s elliptical text as a doomed dialogue between conflicted aspects of a single self that hasn’t quite yet given up.

Another, faintly flickering incarnation of that self was on display in a film that was being projected onto the walls behind the actresses. There you could see a younger Ms. Rusakevich performing in the company’s original “Psychosis” 10 years earlier at the Graffiti bar. These past and present versions of the actress echoed each other’s movements, as if in some eternal fugue of struggle and defeat.

But ah, the vitality in the struggle. Ms. Rusakevich and Ms. Sazonava wrestled, waltzed and cuddled with each other, breaking off to stagger, howling, into the front rows of the tightly packed audience. A comfortable spectator distance was not an option.

Props — cigarettes, candles, a Thermos of coffee — materialized out of nowhere, to be used as sources of pleasure and pain. At one point, the women smeared and fed each other with fruit from a giant glass goblet. (Yes, the strawberries had been found, after all.) The smell of smashed berries, grapes and bananas saturated the tiny garage, redolent of fecundity and decay. It lingered after the candles had been extinguished in the play’s final scene, leaving us in a noiseless darkness.

The audience filed out quietly. The theater’s crew began the cleanup process immediately — mopping floors, packing lights, disassembling shelves and benches. Within minutes, there was scant evidence that a show had taken place.

A Taste of Reality

The next afternoon, I was back at the garage to see a workshop production of “The Ugly One,” a dark satirical parable by the contemporary German dramatist Marius von Mayenburg about the pursuit of cosmetic perfection, performed by the students of the Fortinbras Studio. The name refers to the Norwegian prince, who is essentially the last character standing amid the pile of corpses that concludes “Hamlet,” the one who lives to tell the tale. Roughly 100 students have passed through Fortinbras since it was founded eight years ago.

Much of their training takes place in the apartment of Andrei Koliada, Ms. Koliada’s father, a large, leonine man who speaks in professorial paragraphs with the emphatic resonance of the actor he was in his youth. For decades, Mr. Koliada worked as a high-ranking official at the Belarussian Academy of Arts but was dismissed because of his association with the Belarus Free Theater.

Sitting in his small, book-lined lair of a den, Mr. Koliada said he doesn’t like to talk about the events in his life after Ms. Koliada and Mr. Khalezin were smuggled out of the country, just before midnight, on the last day of 2010. “It hurts to remember,” he said, “and my nerves are not so good now.” He paused. “I just want to say one thing: After all that, I lost my voice and I was deaf for some time.”

On this afternoon, he was taking four of the five current Fortinbras students (all women) through a series of Stanislavski-style vocal and breathing exercises. Mr. Koliada said that many Free Theater productions — especially Mr. Khalezin’s documentary works, which are rooted in recent and often personal histories — begin not with text but physical improvisation. “The pain has to be felt,” he said.

At the garage the next day, the class members performed “The Ugly One,” which they had prepared under Mr. Shcherban’s direction earlier in the month in Falmouth (with subsequent rehearsals conducted via Skype). As in “Psychosis,” fresh produce figured prominently.

In this case, the fruit of choice was tomatoes, which were fed with increasing frenzy into a blender for the many scenes involving plastic surgery operations. And, oh yes, one of the actresses — playing a cosmetically reconstituted older woman — was wearing grotesque taped-on lips, made of apple skin. (Originally, she told me afterward, they had used pepper strips, which were far less comfortable.)

It was a spirited, strangely haunting performance. And what you might call the salad effect added a sensory dimension to the play that was both funny and disturbing. “It’s not pretty,” a middle-aged woman, attending her first Free Theater production, said to me after the show. “But it’s real.”

Oppressed Voices

The title characters in Mr. Khalezin and Ms. Koliada’s “Time of Women,” the third Belarus Free Theater play I saw in Minsk, might well have figured in the work of Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarussian journalist awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, who specializes in accounts of lives under siege in the former Soviet states.

Like the company’s earlier “Zone of Silence” and, in part, “Being Harold Pinter,” “Time of Women” is a documentary work, rooted in interviews, that portrays political persecution in Minsk.

The theater, in this case, was the connected living room, vestibule and kitchen of a private apartment. This felt appropriate for a drama about the intersection of domestic and political lives, in which three women gather at the home of one to recall the time they shared in a detention center.

I arrived with the last installment of the audience, which was led up several stories through an unlighted back staircase. There were about 30 of us, all in our stocking feet. (It is the Belarussian custom to take off your shoes when you enter a home.)

We were mostly seated thigh-to-thigh on a long sofa, and on the windowsill and floor above and below it. The longtime company actress Marinya Yurevich was in the kitchen, preparing an apple cake that would figure in the play’s last scene.

She was portraying Natalia Radina, the (real) Belarussian journalist who now edits an opposition website out of Warsaw. Ms. Sazonava played Irina Khalip, also a journalist and the wife of Andrei Sannikov, a Belarussian presidential candidate in 2010, whose subsequent imprisonment became an international cause célèbre; Ms. Rusakevich was Nastia Dashkevich, a youth leader. The women were all arrested after protesting the outcome of the elections in December 2010.

The apartment where the play was staged had been furnished with an iron-frame bunk bed (for the prison scenes), a tiny collapsible Christmas tree (for the scenes at home) and, in the vestibule, a desk with a glaring lamp.

That was the province of the cast’s single male member, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, who played the K.G.B. agent who interviews each woman with the object of breaking her spirit. His interrogation techniques include noisily slurping ramen noodles throughout. The inventive use of food for emotional ends, it seems, can be used for political as well as theatrical effect.

Earlier that day, I had received a message from Ms. Koliada asking me to make allowances for the lack of a proper set in this production. But that private, cramped apartment seemed to me the ideal stage for a work about the persistence of invasive memories of political abuse.

At one point, Ms. Yurevich’s Natalia talked about the noises of prison: “The clank of the dishes and doors, creaking stairs, screaming guards, cracking batons, the crunching sound of the electric shocks — when our friends were driven downstairs to be tortured.” She went on: “If I hear a similar sound now, my entire body contracts.”

Afterward, most of those associated with the production stayed on in the apartment for dinner, seated on the floor of what had been the playing area.

There was a lot of wine, and, yes, fresh fruit and vegetables. Conversation subjects included the difficulties of surviving the weeks during the summer when the hot water in your neighborhood is turned off (for repairs, an annual occurrence in Minsk), and a recent, much-mocked television ad for Mr. Lukashenko’s re-election, in which he was seen harvesting potatoes in a pristine white T-shirt.

It was reassuring to see Mr. Kanstantsinau, who had been terrifying as the K.G.B. interrogator, turn back into the sweet, soft-spoken young man who the day before I had visited in his new apartment, where pictures of Cher and Frank Zappa watch over the bed. Still, I found myself occasionally glancing nervously toward the vestibule, where his grim alter-ego had systematically bullied and humiliated three women. The festive brightness of the dinner party had not entirely erased his shadow.

I remembered what Mr. Shcherban had said to me in London a few days earlier: “Wherever we go, we always carry our nightmares with us. For us, the theater is the only way to get rid of them.”

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