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By ERIC GRODE
Command performances in London’s House of Parliament, 10-minute standing ovations in New York, adoring crowds in Hong Kong: The last few months have been one triumphant appearance after another for Belarus Free Theatre. However, the company’s intrepid, structurally bold works have not been hailed in its home country.
"Today we’re homeless," says Natalia Koliada, a co-founder of the troupe, which is currently performing three of its original shows in rep at La MaMa (in a co-production with the Public Theater.) "We’re between continents."
Well before the postelection protests that led to a totalitarian crackdown in December 2010, the former Soviet republic of Belarus had been branded by Condoleezza Rice as one of the world’s six "outposts of tyranny." Dissent of any nature was and is dangerous under the leadership of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, whose re-election triggered the protests; Koliada says the young audiences who flock to Belarus Free Theatre productions at home "bring their passports with them in case they are arrested just for being there."
The company---which Koliada founded with her husband, Nikolai Khalezin, in 2005---was scheduled to appear this January in the acclaimed Under the Radar festival, which runs every winter at the Public and throughout the East Village. Belarus Free Theatre had made a successful New York debut at Under the Radar in 2008 with Generation Jeans, a solo show about the struggle to declare personal freedom in Belarus. This time it had prepared a new piece with elements that would be familiar to Western audiences: Being Harold Pinter, which melds excerpts from Pinter’s plays and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with statements from Belarussian political prisoners.
But some company members were detained and even jailed after the late 2010 election, and the rest of the troupe literally had to smuggle themselves out of the country.
Ultimately, the troupe was able to appear in Under The Radar as planned. Their run was extended, and they added another original work to their bill: Zone of Silence, which looks at various taboo topics in modern Belarussian society.
Meanwhile, the global artistic community vociferously supported the company. Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, and Mark Russell, who steers Under the Radar, were joined by the likes of Tony Kushner and Mandy Patinkin as they protested outside the Belarussian mission to the United States. Subsequent rallies in support of the company and of the Free Belarus Now campaign (freebelarusnow.org) included a London performance, where Khalezin performed an excerpt from Generation Jeans with Jude Law in a committee room of the House of Commons.
A few company members soon snuck back into Belarus, according to Koliada. "One actress turned on her mobile phone, which is one of the ways we are followed," she says, "and the police brought her in for interrogation the next day." Still, the remaining members in Belarus recently mounted a small-scale underground performance in their country---"just to remind them that we still exist."
These dislocating months have provided Belarus Free Theatre with a new set of experiences to draw upon. But while the relative ease in terms of staging a piece outside of Belarus is refreshing, Koliada says she misses the intensity of the performances back home. "Working underground comes with a lot of limits, of course," she says, "but at the same time, there is a unique exchange of energy between the actors and the audience back home. The Belarussian audience is the best audience in the world because the stakes are so high there."
In addition to Being Harold Pinter and Zone of Silence, the current La MaMa run includes the New York premiere of Discover Love, about the life of Irina Krasovskaya, a Belarussian woman whose husband is widely believed to have been kidnapped and murdered in 1999 by government forces. (His body has never been found, although Krasovskaya has been told that a videotape exists of his killing.)
For their part, Koliada and Khalezin have considered flying back to Minsk, Belarus’ capital, knowing full well that it would result in a direct trip from the airport to prison. "While that would be effective as a statement," she says, "everything that Belarus Free Theatre does to bring attention to the people would be gone.
"It is our responsibility to tell the world about people being tortured in KGB jails," she says. "While we are free, we need to speak. And that is what we will continue to do."
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.