The Messy But Effective Premiere of WE ARE PUSSY RIOT at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

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The Messy But Effective Premiere of WE ARE PUSSY RIOT at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

Libby Matthews, Liba Vaynberg, and Katya Stepanov

Libby Matthews, Liba Vaynberg, and Katya Stepanov

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 14, 2015

Based on my entirely unscientific poll, WE ARE PUSSY RIOT was the audience favorite among the five plays being staged at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. You might not expect that kind of popularity for a show that chaotically intersperses and dilutes the story of the titular well-known Russian feminist punk protestors imprisoned for a provocation in February 2012 at Moscow’s Russian Orthodox cathedral with the much less-known story of an older male prisoner seized during the later Bolotnaya Square protests. Nor would one predict that kind of favor for a show whose script was subject to major reorganization during the rehearsal process. Yet the dynamism and the sheer energy, not to mention breathtaking bravery, of the young women at the center of the action, carry the day. With all the show’s problems, including a dramatically justified but still emotionally deflating denial of a curtain call, audience members leave exhilarated.

I think the success of the piece notwithstanding these drawbacks rests upon what author Barbara Hammond and her various collaborators at Shepherdstown get right. This includes a recreation of an actual Pussy Riot provocation/performance (which is visually all of a piece with the documentary evidence in HBO’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer); excerpts from the Russian government’s show trial which rely largely on the actual words of the defendants, lawyers, and judge; and the language and attitudes of the authorities, especially the police and the judiciary, which are notorious. And overarching these, the show nails the crisis of authority and legitimacy for the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church the Pussy Riot protestors helped exacerbate for a while to an acuteness sharper than even the play conveys.

When these things are working, often sparked by the infectious (and accurately portrayed) high spirits and attractiveness of the three young women Putin’s minions held to account, one tends to overlook things like the problem of deciding at any given moment whether it is a political prisoner, a prosecutor, or Vladimir Putin himself talking (all gamely but confusingly portrayed by the highly adaptable T. Ryder Smith), like determining whether the political prisoner is conversing with an examining physician or the ghost of poet Anna Akhmatova or even the judge (all played by the nearly-as-flexible Sarah Nealis). We overlook the story being told in a more phantasmagorical than representational way, just sitting back at times and let parts of it wash over us,

It’s okay. There’s a good argument to be made that a well-made play about these deliberately unpolished provocateurs would have been as much of a contradiction of what they stand for as tucking in a tribute to the Russian Orthodox patriarch. In any case: no fear, not happening here. In fact, the play doesn’t even hold still long enough to end with a tableau of some sort showing our three heroines as heroines.

Instead, by portraying two of them after their release from prison cozying up to and performing with Madonna, the show poses some hard questions about the responsibilities young heroes and heroines shoulder when their first youthful triumphs are behind them. So far as I can determine, this part is fiction; two members of the group did appear on stage with Madonna, but only to speak. Still, others in the Pussy Riot collective sought to eject them because of this supposed apostasy from the anarchist ideal, so it obviously struck a nerve. But no one can stay young forever. Nor can the demands of fame be easily evaded. Would it have been selling out to perform with Madonna, had that really happened, especially when Madonna had earlier, during the show trial, turned up the heat on the Russian government by giving a concert in Moscow flaunting a message supporting the defendants written on her back? Tough question, and one the members of Pussy Riot will increasingly confront in real life as time goes on. The struggle to change Russia is not going to stop, and the Pussy Rioters will certainly be looked to for leadership, or comment, or at least example for others to emulate. So I think this was a fine question to pose near the end.

Let me, in parting, tip the hat to Libby Matthews, Liba Vaynberg, and Katya Stepanov, pictured left to right above, for their fine portrayals of the heroines Nadya, Masha, and Katya, respectively. They astutely captured and shared the good cheer, determination, and sheer guts of the women they portrayed.

This is the world premiere of WE ARE PUSSY RIOT. The play will require some polish in subsequent productions. But I honestly hope it does not receive too much.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman

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