Belarus Free Theatre’s BURNING DOORS, and Sea Dog Theatre DANNY & THE DEEP BLUE SEA

I haven’t been able to sit down and properly type anything about the theatre I experienced this past weekend until now. It’s rare to be able to see one production of such immediacy and earnestness that it both challenges one’s expectations of theatre, and reinvigorates an artist in search of his next project, journey, or purpose. I say it’s rare to see one, and in a single day I saw two productions that did this for me within a few blocks of each other in Manhattan, in theatrical spaces far away from Broadway, and in the case of one production, far beneath it.

One such production is the latest ensemble collaborative effort from Belarus Free Theatre called Burning Doors at LaMama Experimental Theatre Club. Devised and performed by the ensemble, along with guest artist Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, the piece was a blistering 1 hour and 45 minutes of sensory, emotional, and intellectual overload. To try and encapsulate this performance in words that express a uniform traditional narrative is impossible. It features contributions to its spoken texts and thematic structures in the form of a dense list of inspirations:

  • Fear and Russian Contemporary Artist in a Russian Jail by Petr Pavlensky
  • Final statement by Oleg Sentsov (an imprisoned Russian artist)
  • Extract from: How to Start a Revolution by Maria Alyokhina
  • Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault
  • The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Lonely by Boombox
  • Russian and Belarussian folk songs

Moments of depraved humiliation, death defying acts of sadistic torture, and self-flagellation follow amidst a gorgeous soundscape of characters, personas, and the very real first hand testimony of these artists who themselves have either faced dictatorial oppression as artists, or imprisonment as propaganda. At times we are watching and listening to the strip and disrobe to reveal the fragile human bodies underneath committing, or experiencing, acts of depravity on one another, or listening to the seemingly benign conversations of two government Post Soviet-Apparatchiks discuss their disillusionment with having to decide how to handle the legal fate of artists they deem beneath themselves. These conversations at times occur in two lounge chairs, or in another hilarious scene, on toilets while defecating. In the latter scene we as the audience get a very real sense that modern Russian justice is nothing more than the raw sewage effluence that passes through government functionaries. Considering that by the end of the scene they’re more preoccupied with what is in their toilets rather than what happens to any jailed artists says a great deal about the fate of many people in the Belarussian, Russian, and American justice systems as well.

Highly stylized, and very dangerous-looking acts of high flying boldness occur throughout the rest of the performance, buttressed by the sounds of folk songs that, even without understanding them fully, long for a world that is more just and right. At one point the world of the performance is quickly and boldly stripped away to invite a very real Q&A with Maria Alyokhina. At one point an audience member asks:

Q: How did you get to leave Russia and come to the USA after leaving prison?
 A: This isn’t the 70s…but they know where I live.

The ghosts of the political past and present haunt Burning Doors throughout its fast-paced running time. They come out to assault our senses and make us question our faith in any ideal we can supposedly classify as “freedom” when artists who are simply expressing themselves in a world gone mad are locked up without explanation or real charge. It’s enough to strip a viewer’s soul down to nothing, yet somehow, amidst the flames literally burning the doors of prisons at the end of the play one can see a flame of hope in the darkness…a flame that rests with each viewer to stoke for themselves as they leave the theatre.

I left this piece Burning Doors feeling as though the suffering of those artists in prison, and those who created the piece, were a sacrificial act for all of us to take in and recharge our efforts to create art with purpose, engage in meaningful dialogue with each other, and to protest all the wrongdoings of any government that wraps itself in the veil of “freedom” to commit so many wrongs against its own people. There are still so many swirling thoughts I have about this piece, but I can say this fever dream of dystopic nightmares and personal suffering left me very oddly invigorated and renewed my faith in the purpose of a theatrical vocation. There truly is hope within the burning ruins of oppression with the work of groups like Belarus Free Theatre. Please check them out if Burning Doors comes to your city. The world needs to see this piece and hear its many cries for justice.

Just a few blocks away, another theatre company was offering a slightly more delicate, and intimate view into human suffering and redemption

In the Olmsted Salon underneath Saint George’s Church, upstart Sea Dog Theatre offered a view into the world of two other battered fictional characters. John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and The Deep Blue Sea is a play about two alienated people adrift in a world that has battered them both and left them very few tools to affect meaningfully change in their own lives. Roberta (played by Rosa Arredondo) and Danny (played by Christopher Domig) stumble upon each other one night in a bar in the Bronx drinking to purge their sorrows away, and perhaps bringing more of them on in the process. In this production we as the audience are seated not separated from them, but in among them, cabaret/cafe style, as if we were meant to be eavesdropping on the ever increasing tension in their conversation.

A bruised and aching longing for forgiveness emerges in the words, moments, and characters. As the conversation intensifies so do the characters’ passions for one another as they begin to try and sexually devour each other right before our eyes and shift the entire performance from one room to the next. Performed as a moving, sight-specific piece in the catacombs under a Manhattan church one feels as if the production is pulling them literally along in the journey of these characters’ searches for emotional, sexual, and spiritual redemption. Traveling with them through darkness from bar to bedroom in the depths of a 19th century “house of God” connects us with the visceral immediacy of their pain and discoveries, and our own. Christopher Domig plays Danny with a simmering volatility and explodes into a sensual vulnerability after all his anger at the world is spent. Rosa Arredondo plays Roberta with a measured veneer of guarded world-weariness and joyfully reveals a charmingly childlike wonder at the possibility of renewal in herself. Both actors came together in this piece to create a sort of sacred space for these two lost, troubled, and battered souls, to find their idea of rebirth in the morning light.

Theatre as unpretentious, immediate, and moving as Sea Dog Theatre’s production of Danny and The Deep Blue Sea is a gold standard for what is possible with a simple, direct vision and focused acting. Both Belarus Free Theatre and Sea Dog Theatre showed there is hope among the ruins of personal and political betrayal. The former found it in the burning of doors, and the latter in burning hearts.

I can’t remember the last time I was lucky enough to experience this kind of work twice in one day.