Being Free

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I grew up in the Philippines in the early 80s, during the height of the “conjugal dictatorship” of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.  I remember, as a child, being told by my mom not to mention the Marcos name on the phone in any manner whatsoever, in case there was a wiretap and the whole family got into trouble.  I remember being told the story of one of my grand-aunts and her housemaid who inadvertently crossed in front of one of Imelda Marcos’ sacred, un-crossable beautification gardens and were then taken by military police to the local police station and, in an act of flabbergasting intimidation, told to sing the Philippine national anthem and pledge allegiance to the Marcos government. I still distinctly remember the palpable environment of fear and mistrust, of covertness and suppression, of anxious caution.  Anyone who has ever lived under an authoritarian regime is permanently marked by it.  Conversely, anyone who has never lived under one will never fully understand it.  Harold Pinter, despite his masterful, incisive storytelling gifts, and his empathy for oppressed populations such as the Turkish Kurds, whose plight he reflected in his short play Mountain Language, always lived in the free world.  Consequently, I feel that his late 80s “political plays”, which, in addition to Mountain Language, also includesThe New World Order and One for the Road, all three I saw together in a spectacular basement production from the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t SlimTack Theatre Co. last year, beat you over the head more than punch you in the belly or pierce you in the heart.  However, when these plays are performed by the astonishing, courageous, invaluable Belarus Free Theatre, a theater company that has been repressed by the Belarusian government for speaking out in defense of the basic freedoms we sometimes take for granted, and now unable to go back home, you get the heartplunge and the bellypunch, and these plays become such a painful, illuminating, powerfully wrenching night of theater. Especially since Pinter’s angry words are interspersed with the heartfelt ones of Belarusian political prisoners. If you have only one night of theater you can go to this year, then let it be Belarus Free Theatre’s unforgettable Being Harold Pinter, which started performances at the Goodman Theatre last weekend, and will continue its month-long Chicago residency at Northwestern University and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in the upcoming weekends.  It is as simple as that.

To be honest, Belarus Free Theatre, like all great theater companies, demands a lot from the audience.  Being Harold Pinter is staged in a fragmented manner, crosscutting Pinter’s classic Nobel Prize acceptance speech with scenes from his plays The Homecoming, Old Times, and Ashes to Ashes, and the three one-acts from the 1980s.  Folks unfamiliar with Pinter’s work will, admittedly, feel lost and disoriented at times.  But there is method in the madness.  Harrowing tension is created and the portrayal of oppression, subjugation, loss of freedom, and life under authoritarianism is built-up, developed, deepened, and more directly portrayed, as the more subtle first scene from The Homecoming when the son “terrorizes” the invalid father gives way to the political overtness of  works such as One for the Road (staged to bring out strong critical overtones of the political power of religion) and Mountain Language which then eventually transitions into the outrageous, ferocious, heart-stopping language of the letters from the Belarusian political prisoners.  The words gain so much depth, power, and resonance, not to mention undeniable moral authority, as you realize that these seven brilliant actors have actually lived through these situations and survived (in the production program, the bio of almost every member of Belarus Free Theatre ends with the sentence  “He/She has been arrested for his/her political activities”).  And that they have an uncertain future where they may not be able to go back to their homeland.  But that they soldier on.  As Chris Jones notes in his review, this play is in no way a “balanced presentation”, and it shouldn’t be – this production is incendiary, it is politically explicit, it is agitating, but I strongly feel that when speaking out against dictatorship and for basic human freedoms, artists, and theater, can’t be otherwise. 

Being Harold Pinter is not all about the language – it has vividly realized, powerfully conceptualized stage images, from the entire cast enveloped by and struggling against a taut tarpaulin to a surreal and somewhat bawdily staged scene from The New World Order, in which two guards try to intimidate a half-naked, blindfolded prisoner to a bloodied paper plane to represent the murder of a child to total darkness, lit only by wandering flashlights, when the letters from the Belarusian prisoners are read.  Ultimately, though, it is the thought that these actors, this director, this theater company, have, in a sense, prevailed even temporarily and in truly difficult conditions, over their authoritarian nemesis by creating art, freely, invaluably, and passionately, in our city where freedom is a right not an entitlement, which awes you and stays with you for days afterwards.

Belarus Free Theatre’s Being Harold Pinter will be at the Struble Theatre in the Theatre and Interpretation Center, Northwestern University, 1949 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL from February 4-6 and February 11-13.  It will then transfer to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave, Chicago, from February 18-20.  If you are a true theatergoer, then you will make every effort to see this magnificent work.

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