Saturday, May 21, 2011

On-Stage: I Plead Guilty

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was a paragon of journalistic virtue, who gave the Putin administration fits with her muck-raking reports of Russia’s “Dirty War” in Chechnya. She was assassinated for her efforts, but not before attempting to mediate the infamous 2002 hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater. In retrospect, it seems pretty clear the Russians were determined to attack the Chechen hostage-takers, with little regard for the safety of the hostages. Still shrouded in mystery and controversy, Natalia Pelevine examines the incident through the eyes of two very different women in Dare To Speak Productions' I Plead Guilty, which officially opened on-stage last night in New York at the Gene Frankel Theater.

Natasha is not exactly Politkovskaya, but she is a Russian journalist who was once based in Chechnya. However, she was only at the theater to review the show. (Take note, this is dangerous work, not for the faint of heart.) Seda is a Chechen Muslim, who has made her peace with the gender inequities of her faith to wage war on the Russians. In terms of temperament, they could not be more different. Yet, as Natasha tries to engage her captor, they each find areas of common ground. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of impending tragedy is inescapable.

Frankly, the Russian-Chechen conflict is devilishly hard for Westerners to get a handle on. To outsiders, it looks like a pitched battle between an ideology of death and a tradition of corruption and oppression. Still, the work of Politkovskaya (and its consequences) speaks volumes about Putin’s neo-Soviet regime. An active member of the Russian opposition, playwright-director Pelevine captures the nature Russian thug-in-chief through Natasha’s voice: “Remember when the submarine went down and everyone on board died because the government did nothing? He said to Larry King when asked what happened, he said ‘it sank.’ And he smiled.”

In its miniature clash of civilizations, Natasha displays all the neuroses of the Western world, yet Dana Pelevine keeps her grounded and credible. She also deftly handles her big back-story revelations that could easily come across as contrived or convenient. Evgeniya Radilova is also quite convincing conveying the conflict between Seda’s extremism and her humanity, despite the complications of the religiously mandated veil she wears for a good part of the production. (For this reason particularly, Guilty probably benefits from the intimacy of a small theater like the Frankel.)

Wisely, Guilty does not whitewash or absolve the Chechen terrorists, but it clearly accuses Putin of making a bad situation exponentially worse. There are still a lot of questions that ought to be asked about the Dubrovka Theater incident, but everyone who does seems to turn up dead. Yet, though the production of Guilty (including some carefully assembled displays in the Frankel lobby) definitely hopes to raise awareness of current realities in Russia, the drama itself is quite tightly focused on the two women. As a result it is very accessible to general audiences, including those who are not especially well versed in events in the neo-Stalinist state. An intriguing and challenging production willfully oblivious New Yorkers need to see, Guilty runs through May 29th at the Frankel.

(Photo: Raymond Haddad)