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The legacy of the late Russian journalist speaks directly to the turmoil of today
More than a thousand people attended the funeral of Anna Politkovskaya, a respected Russian journalist who was found murdered in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006. She was well known for investigating atrocities committed during her homeland's two wars with Chechnya. But when a high-ranking Russian official was asked to comment on her killing, he replied, "Sorry, I don't know who Anna Politkovskaya is."
That is the last line of Stefano Massini's Intractable Woman: A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya, which is being mounted by The Play Company. That glib statement was also "the launching point that developed this production," according to the director Lee Sunday Evans. "To dismiss or ignore people of such integrity is one of the most insidious forms of the abuse of authority."
Although Intractable Woman belongs to the documentary theatre genre, it's not presented as a traditional biographical drama. Three actresses (Nicole Shalhoub, Nadine Malouf and Stacey Yen) switch off as Politkovskaya, often in rapid succession, and also play the other characters she encounters. Evans says there's a dramaturgical reason a trio of performers share the role. "Anna was murdered -- Anna cannot be present on stage, her life was cut short." she explains. "We can't hear her tell her stories. These three women are doing an act of service to her her life, what she lived through."
Most of the play focuses on Politkovskaya's work. While the playwright uses his words (translated into English from the original Italian by Paula Wing) instead of hers, the reporter's personality and passion shine through. "She is not portrayed as a noble hero," says Evans. "But through the granular details of her journalism, we learn about her intellect and her incredible persistence."
Over 75 minutes, the performers share some of the horrors she witnessed, and recreate a few of the shocking interviews she conducted. A 19-year-old Russian boy named Sasha, who signed up to be a soldier in Chechnya because he couldn't find work back home, explains matter-of-factly that "each of us has to kill three or four a day….It's not like they're human, they're just Chechens. Do you have a cigarette?"
Sasha is played by Yen, who also portrays Abubakar, a ringleader of the Chechen terrorists who held more than 800 theatregoers hostage at Moscow's Dubrovka Theatre in 2002. The insurgents summoned Politkovskaya there "because we know your writing," and we watch as she tries to negotiate with them.
"Tell me what you want."
"Maybe we don't want anything, did you ever think of that? Only to show we exist. That Chechnya exists."
Malouf, who plays Politkovskaya in both those scenes opposite Yen, was impressed that the script relays even the most horrific events without sensationalism. "The language is very moving in its sharpness, simplicity and rhythm," she observes.
Sometimes too moving. There were times during rehearsals when Malouf admits she was too choked up to speak the lines. In one scene, Politkovskaya hears an explosion, realizes there's been a suicide bombing and rushes toward it as everyone else flees. She lists what she sees -- burning vans, cars tipped over, paper folders, shredded clothes. But when she runs out of things she can name, she starts repeating "blood, snow, blood, snow, blood, snow."
"The whole show is incredibly difficult," Malouf admits. Part of the challenge is "the density of the text -- there's a lot of history." But mostly, "you have to have stamina to say the lines without losing it, to report the way she did," she says, noting that she watched video clips of Politkovskaya speaking to prepare for the part. "You could tell she was passionate, but very focused. No excessive movement." The playwright, Malouf believes, captures that quality in his script. "Her voice is very clear, analytical and political."
At a time when facts are constantly under attack and the U.S. President has branded journalists as "the enemy of the people," Intractable Woman feels eerily on point. For example, after being called "an enemy of the state" by an anonymous group allegedly made up of soldiers from the 68th Russian Army Corps, Politkovskaya responds, "It's true, I am an enemy….I'm an enemy of those who rape, loot and steal."
"This is an extraordinary opportunity to bring Anna's work to a wider audience," says Evans. "That is what I think theatre can be, a place for an audience to come together as a community to bear witness to complex truths."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Intractable Woman. Go here to browse our current offers.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub, Stacey Yen in Intractable Woman. Photos by Julieta Cervantes.