Pavel Haradnitski and Kiryl Kanstantsinau sharing a quiet moment in the madness.
(L-R) Pavel Haradnitski and Kiryl Kanstantsinau sharing a quiet moment in the madness. Nicolai Khalezin

Sponsored
Helping you create a space uniquely yours for work or play, with style and art, your way.
Custom framing, photo frames, printing on metal, paper and canvas.

In the United States we make a lot of art *about* politics, but the Belarus Free Theatre is making political art. This is partly a function of their status—they've been banned from performing in their home country, and every member of their founding group has been arrested and tortured for making theater. They've since fled to London to continue their work as refugees, but even in exile, they're still at it: "The thing that united us was the protest against censorship in Belarus," BFT co-creator and director Vladimir Shcherban said in a recent interview. "In Britain, it's the protest against the dictatorship of money."

Burning Doors, which counts Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina among its ensemble and which runs this weekend only at On the Boards, isn't self-serious pain tourism or an ~exploration of the liminal spaces between~ jack shit. It's a brief history of three soviet dissidents that looks like a street brawl in a torture chamber, but it's also a show full of humor and life and embodied arguments about the struggle for freedom under totalitarian regimes.

(L-R) Maryia Sazonava and Maria Alyokhina (of Pussy Riot) sharing a smoke between torture scenes.
(L-R) Maryia Sazonava and Maria Alyokhina (of Pussy Riot) sharing a smoke between torture scenes. Alex Brenner

The first half serves as a primer on dissident activity in Russia and Ukraine during the first few years of the 2010s. With paragraphs from Dostoyevsky and Foucault laced in-between, performers described and at times act out the arrest, imprisonment, and torture of members Pussy Riot (the punk rock group who was imprisoned in 2012 for playing a show in Cathedral of Christ the Savior), Petr Pavlensky (who is famous for nailing his balls to the cobblestones of Red Square and for setting the doors of Russia's secret-police headquarters on fire, hence this piece's title) and Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who's currently serving a 20-year term for suspicion of committing terrorism.

In a series of rapid-fire scenes, BFT used repetition both of language and of movement to show how those in power normalize submission. "In prison they don't teach you to follow the rules, but not to break them," Alyokhina said at one point. Then they rolled a bathtub onto the stage. One of the men (Kiryl Masheka) began to dunk Alyokhina's head beneath the water. He did it over and over again until eventually she dunked her own head beneath the water and held it there for a disturbingly long time. Later on, one actor tackles another actor—again and again—until eventually the guy getting tackled uses the attacker's own weight to fling him off. In both of these instances, the person being tortured ends up using the tools of the oppressor to liberate themselves.

This scene was hard to watch.
This scene was hard to watch. Alex Brenner

Important note! The show isn't all brilliant demonstrations of physical theater. There are also hilarious jokes. My favorite scene involves two Kremlin functionaries making the argument that Picasso ruined everything while sitting on their respective toilet seats.

(Another important note! The first half is in Russian with subtitles, but the second half is almost completely physical.)

But my favorite thing happened in the middle of the show. The house lights went up and BFT gave the OtB audience a chance to ask Alyokhina whatever they wanted. Unlike any other Q&A I've ever seen in Seattle, the artist didn't tip-toe around anyone's feelings. When some audience members asked questions that were clearly rooted in capitalist ideas of utility, questions that were devoid of any understanding that art-making is a true form of protest in some countries and not just a career choice that provides parlor room fodder for the already-initiated, she answered their question accordingly. I present most of the Qs and the As here, edited for clarity:

Q: Why make a play?
A: Because... because... because of the things of which we're talking here.

Q: I was just wondering what was your process? [Insert a paragraph of art-speak.]
A: I'm sorry, do you have a question?

Q: What was your process?
A: [Alyokhina didn't say anything, so her interlocutor spoke.] I think you're asking a question about theater. That will be addressed later. This is Maria. You can ask her personal questions.

Q: Did you ever speak to Putin?
A: I think, yes. These five years have been a close, personal dialogue between us and Putin.

Support The Stranger

Q: Why did Putin do what he did [jail Pussy Riot] knowing it was going to turn into an international event with lots of backlash?
A: I don't think he knew. He just did it. They couldn't say they were wrong, and that's why they're wrong.

Q: What can we do to help?
A: Make political art here.

Hear, hear. Burning Doors is a fine example, and I haven't seen anything like it in Seattle.