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Belarus Free Theater Marks New York Appearance With Sold-Out Performances

Scene from "Being Harold Pinter," performed by the Belarus Free Theater at La Mama Theater in New York City at its opening on January 5
Scene from "Being Harold Pinter," performed by the Belarus Free Theater at La Mama Theater in New York City at its opening on January 5
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By Nikola Krastev
NEW YORK -- Belarus's Free Theater almost didn't make it to New York City.

The underground troupe's members have been subject to harassment, beatings, blackmail, and imprisonment at the hands of the authoritarian government in Minsk.

In the aftermath of Belarus's disputed December 19 presidential election, two of its members were arrested and others went into hiding as the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka rounded up its political opponents.

Eventually, members of the troupe were able to leave the country, taking care to do so in small groups in order to not attract official attention. Playwright Natalya Kolyada, Belarus Free Theater's co-founder, described the ordeal as a "thriller."

Political Thriller

Due to the atmosphere back home, the Free Theater's trip has taken on political overtones.

While in the United States, Kolyada plans to visit members of the U.S. Congress to brief them on the political situation in Belarus. She also wants to organize a pro-democracy rally similar to one held in London before the December 19 vote.

"We are trying now to do the same thing in New York but in the current situation we need to express our support to all who are jailed in Belarus and who are facing long prison terms," Kolyada says. "Our [theater] activity is continuing, but unfortunately we cannot at this point separate our theater and other [social] activities."

Scene from "Being Harold Pinter" at La Mama Theater
With many of the Free Theater's supporters still in jail, Kolyada and her colleagues have secured the support of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former South African leader Nelson Mandela, rock legend Mick Jagger, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg in their efforts to free them.

Under The Radar

While in New York, the troupe is one of the headliners for the Under The Radar 2011 independent theater festival, which showcases experimental theater from around the world and runs through January 16. They are slated to perform "Being Harold Pinter," directed by Uladzimer Shcherban.

Mark Russell, the artistic director of Under The Radar, says that the Minsk troupe fits perfectly with the festival's agenda. He calls it "one of the best examples of groups that continue to make their work and tour it to different communities to share with them. I think this small-scale, more intimate theater is what really binds cultures together, it's where real cultural exchange happens."

Russell adds that among the New York theater aficionados there is a lot of interest in artistic developments in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The audience at the January 5 opening show at La Mama Theater in Manhattan gave the troupe a three-minute standing ovation.

They also won rave reviews from both "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal."

Universal Appeal

Kolyada attributes the Free Theater's popularity to the universal human appeal of their plays. "These are the themes the audience wants to see and hear," she says. "It happens relatively rarely in the modern theater. We are trying to touch upon topics that are genuine, that are personal, and affect people in a personal way."

Steven Hitt, the director of the La Guardia Performing Arts Center in New York, who was in attendance on January 5, says that even without the political undercurrents he loved "Being Harold Pinter" simply on its artistic merits.

Hitt says that combining the works of Pinter -- a Nobel laureate who died in 2008 -- from different periods and setting them in a contemporary context is certainly an innovative approach.

"I loved it as a piece of theater. Combining the work of Pinter earlier on and comparing it to what's going in the world now and bringing it on to life is pretty amazing thing to be doing," Hitt says. "It was beautifully done."
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by: Shannon
January 10, 2011 21:50
I tried to get tickets!! It sold out hours after an article about the performance went up on the NYTimes.

by: NJ from: Planet Earth
January 21, 2011 07:21
The Free Theater is not that exceptional from performance point of view and would be generally unknown to the world if not for that 'oh, how we love the underdog!' phenomena. Add to that love verb 'political' and all objective viewing disappears in a flick because 'poor, poor them living such a tough life under the Europe last dictator' (long live Condi!). That that fact the 'dictator' let the theater travel freely and perform abroad doesn't go along chosen narration doesn't matter as doesn't matter Ms Kolyada&Co lack of any remorse about lying intentionally (travel to Minsk first then watch BBC documentary about the theater to compare) about her own country because lying is so..., so irrelevant when we talk about 'poor, poor them', the future consultants/advisers/ analysts to multinationals, who'll rip off Belarus naked if, God forbid, their paid for colored revolution succeed.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York NY
January 27, 2011 05:50
What a nasty, despicable thing to be writing, NJ. You sound like a regime tool. This hard-working troupe is talented and impressive in its own right, even without their status as "victim". And they don't play the victim but hold their heads high. I don't see any evidence of them "lying" -- that sounds like regime propaganda. Thank God a universal form of art has been found to break the barriers of isolation and repression of Belarus. I saw their performances twice, and they were excellent and moving -- both as art and as a political act.

I'm increasingly disgusted by this leftist global narrative of "the paid-for colour revolutions". For one, they aren't as paid for as you would think to hear it from these apologists for authoritarianism. For two, even if they get help from abroad, what of it?! We should be helping such struggles for democracy. Why the double standard about struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, where violence is even used and extremism lurks nearby democratic dissidents coming to power, and no solidarity with these brave people in Minsk?! If the regime of Belarus is still porous, and not as deadly as Iran, that's something to be grateful for, not something to sneer at as if it discredits these good people. Shame on you!

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