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Being Harold Pinter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nikolai Khalezin, Pavel Gorodnitski, and Denis Tarasenko.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

One of the most spine-tingling things that can occur in the theatre is the intertwining of art and reality in a way so complete, it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. That doesn't just happen in Being Harold Pinter—that is Being Harold Pinter. The Public Theater and La MaMa ETC have returned the Belarus Free Theatre production to La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, where it played in January during The Public's Under the Radar festival, and are providing another chance to witness not just a remarkable fusion of fact and fiction, but one of the most globally meaningful shows you're likely to see all year.

This is not hyperbole. The story's old news by now, but it nevertheless bears recounting: In the wake of the December reelection of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, which is popularly thought to have been fixed and known to have been violent (police beat two opposition candidates on election day), the members of the theatre company had to be smuggled out of the country on trucks in order to perform at Under the Radar. And, given the protest-heavy nature of their work, which had always forced them to perform in secret, they were unable to return to their home, commonly considered the last literal dictatorship in Europe, for fear of retaliation.

Being Harold Pinter, which was adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, is drenched in exactly this ethos. Beginning with scenes contained in Pinter's less overtly political works, such as Old Times and The Homecoming, and interspersed with excerpts from his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the evening is established as one heavy with symbolic truth. The characters we see either enforce or resist authority, but carry out their actions (or, just as often, inaction) with the begrudging acknowledgment of a world that works but is just not fully within their control.

Slowly, this begins to unravel. The uneasy realism and cautious tension in these snippets morph into something darker and more dangerous as Pinter's more specifically relevant and declamatory works, such as Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes, emerge and the staging itself seems to unhinge from the familiar. (Squashed apples, what looks like a constricting plastic shower curtain, and a burning paper airplane all play vital roles.) Eventually, Pinter all but disappears entirely as the lights are completely extinguished and the dialogue becomes recitations from the memories of the ordinary people the Lukashenko government has terrorized.

What's most spellbinding about this is that it's scarcely possible to tell where Pinter's writings stop and the interview transcriptions start. Shcherban, through his stark staging (the set consists of a handful of chairs and almost nothing else), and his excellent seven-person cast melt seamlessly from one source and style into the next, washing you along on a wave of understanding that the most significant events in both the theatre and the theatre of war are often one and the same. The best artists achieve this synergy through rigorously applied work; the Belarus Free Theatre has done it, and continues to do it, merely by surviving and thus becoming inextricable from the words they utter.

As a theatregoing experience, this 75-minute outing is not exactly frustration-free. Pinter, a dense and unyielding wordsmith, has been translated fluidly into Russian and Belarusian here, but unless you have to-the-letter familiarity with all his plays and that Nobel speech, you'll probably have to root your eyes on the projected surtitles. This can make actually watching what's unfolding onstage a challenge; the power comes through, but it's difficult to release yourself to it entirely without a concrete grasp of what you're hearing.

But that's a small price to pay for a show this engaging, this informative, and, yes, this important. Being Harold Pinter, both for what it says and the circumstances surrounding how it's saying it, reveals an existence most of us cannot imagine. It, and two companion works (Zone of Silence and Discover Love), are playing through May 15, showing us in the most rivetingly theatrical way—just as Pinter did—that what we think we know is never the whole story. The only solace to be found is that the company has found its own semi-happy ending, at least for now. Whether that will endure is anyone's guess. But as long as the Belarus Free Theatre is speaking out, one suspects it will—somewhere.

Belarus Free Theatre
Being Harold Pinter
In repertory with Zone of Silence and Discover Love, through May 15
Ellen Stewart Theater, 74A East 4th Street - South side of East 4th Street, between The Bowery & 2nd Avenue
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