Performative Truth: A Review of Red Tape Theatre’s WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (or) Everything is P.R.

(from left) Alec Phan, Jalyn Greene, Casey Chapman, Stephanie Shum, Emily Nichelson in WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (Or Everything Is P.R.) / Photo credit: Austin Oie

(from left) Alec Phan, Jalyn Greene, Casey Chapman, Stephanie Shum, Emily Nichelson in WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (Or Everything Is P.R.) / Photo credit: Austin Oie

After I penned my very first op-ed for my high school newspaper, my mother told me she was glad that they were raising me in the United States, because if they had stayed in Ukraine, I would be dead, or worse. The oped criticized a phenomenon I noticed in my school, in which students who spoke English as a second language were mocked for their pronunciation or grammatical slipups. This piece was harmless in comparison to other movements, people, and groups I have written about since then; I’ve often worried about public response, but then my mom’s words always come back to me.

In 2012, an an anti-Putinist activist and feminist collective entered Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior and protested the illegal presidential elections with a 48-second punk performance. “Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Away!” they chanted. They were dragged out of the church by security guards and sent home. That night, they uploaded a video of their performance to YouTube, and within hours, became enemies of both Church and the Kremlin. Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were arrested, tried, and sent to labor camps for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.

“WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (or) Everything is P.R.” aims to tell the story of how the Western media machine took Pussy Riot and turned into “the greatest piece of performance art piece in Russian history.”

I’ll start by saying this; it is an immense challenge to capture the hundreds of years of history and countless number of players in the stage that resulted in Pussy Riot’s trial. Not to mention capturing this for a squarely Western audience, whose experiences with and knowledge of Russia’s tumultuous political history is limited. Within the script, I felt that decades of thought and theory were condensed into one story, or one line, and may have fallen flat on the ears of American audiences. For instance, a conversation between Putin and the Patriarch of the Orthodox church insisted that the introduction of feminism was dangerous. Feminism has been a part of Russian history since the first Soviet uprising. Now, the way that feminism was executed during Soviet times was vastly different than how we see it today; many Russians and post-Soviets have made a drastic shift to traditionalism as a result of the “feminism” they experienced.

Explanations and retellings of Russian literature and folk songs often felt forced. All throughout the show, I wondered why the playwright had decided to focus on trial transcripts, letters, interviews, media coverage, and statements on Pussy Riot from the Russian perspective, rather than the Western perspective. It seemed as though more work could have been done on dissecting the barrage of misinformation and performative truth through the Western lense than attempting to comprehend the hundreds of years of nuance, deception, history, and perception that is, that was, Russia. My own experience, as a child of Soviet immigrants, varies vastly from those that may have grown up in Russia or Ukraine after the fall; my own experience doesn’t fully grasp or encompass the complexity of Post-Soviet political activism.

For what Barbara Hammond’s may have missed in its oversimplification and overcompensation of how activism functions in the Russian federation, Red Tape Theatre was able to accomplish a different and seemingly important goal: hold up a mirror to the political play that has become the United States of America.

Kate Hendrickson’s direction of the stage allowed for the Yurodivy to balance that “imaginary insanity” across the stage to “reveal the insanity” of our world. The cast was able to shift from acting as one chaotic, press-fueled frenzy to specific characters or archetypes on full display.

Casey Chapman (Vladimir Putin) was stoic, calculating, and cartoonish; in essence, he was portraying the media’s Putin. What I felt the scripted had missed out on, Chapman captured in the moment in which he sat at his pedestal upon the stage and moved robotically, or as if his figure was being dangled by strings. No doubt that Putin is dangerous, yes, but as a pawn in the Kremlin’s game, the stories told by Pussy Riot, Russian activists, media, and government officials are all chess pieces of a terrifying and utterly complex game.

Ann Sonneville (Devout Woman) was the babushka I have seen in person and in media, complete with her kasinka (head covering), of course. Sonneville added an element of understanding and fear through her performance that I found lacking from the script; a fear of Pussy Riot’s actions not simply rooted in traditionalism or religious servitude, but a look to her own Soviet past. Between the media exchanges and portrayal of the Russian Federation, it is sometimes hard to spot the moments in which nothing has truly changed, just the medium and tone in which the story is being told.

Nora King’s knack for dialects added not only a wonderfully humorous air to the show but embodied the amorphous blob of press and public figures all expressing the same misinformation in various formats.

Emilie Modaff (Judge, Anna Politovskaya) has a knack for timing; their comedy as the animated Judge and their honesty as the murdered journalist were hauntingly juxtaposted; the foil here was evident through their portrayal, through the sad story that is a media person telling the truth and a judge spouting lies.

Alec Phan (the police), William Rose II (Sergei) and Jalyn Greene (Masha) added to the humility, the seriousness of this story, playing the role of “fools” to a very different affect. They were the voices of the countless activists who will never be heard, of the Russians who did nothing but follow “the rules” and still ended up in literal or societal prisons. In their stories, their tellings, I wondered about the Western reception of other political protests and performance art activism in Russia, such as Russian political performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who had, among other acts, set fire to a door of the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). He spent six months in pretrial detention, and then was convicted and fined about $8,000. In conjunction with stories like Sergei, who was imprisoned for handing out flyers, I wondered if tallying the stories of the imprisoned could have better expressed the playwright’s desire to show Pussy Riot as a show, an example of the Russian political propaganda machine.

For Chicago, for the United States, this story is important. The simple fact that we can share this story on American stages, in American media, is powerful. The stories these theater artists are sharing is important. Even if the mirror is relatively smudged, it is a reflection, nonetheless, to those that we hold accountable, to those that we rely on to make our “rules” and “fools.”


WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (or) Everything is P.R. performances occur Friday through Monday at THE READY, 4546 N Western Ave through July 6. More information can be found through here.

The Neighborhood’s “3 Sisters” Want to Remind You: “Time flies. My God, how it flies...”

3 Sisters Poster.jpeg

When the Soviet Exhibit entitled Rovoliutsiia! Demonstrasiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test came to the Art Institute of Chicago (October 2017-January 2018), I found my eyes and body looming along a series of propagandists slogans perched on a wall above an entryway that entered to a children’s theatre room; reading “WE WANT! WE WANT! WE WANT!”

Perhaps it was the repetition of the phrase. Perhaps it was the collective “we” that did me over. Either way, WE WANT whispers loudest when I found myself in contact with mass yearning.

The Neighborhood, a Chicago theater company, staged a revival of the 1900 Russian play Three Sisters in the Ravenwood Fellowship Church. Their audience is stuck between a loveseat and a Ladder Used for Coats: foreshadowing an entangled closeness. The ticketing table is hidden upon low sheets.

This is the pre-show: A cast member dancing to Russian House. A woman plays flute in a corner near the piano. Maiya Corral, our Masha for the evening, speaks up. “Ah, yes. Welcome to the Neighborhood.”

Act One: (Our suffering? That’s going to turn into joy…)

A stage flooded pink, the show starts with a hanging frame. We meet these characters loudly, drunkenly. Someone painting on drum clock. It’s youngest sister Irina’s (played by Park Williams) birthday. Dressed in a frill pink, William’s portrayal of Irina knows the meaning of life. She doesn’t want to cry; she wants to work. It’s a hopeful celebration for the Sisters and their loud, zealous chosen family. They dance to electric house and drink spirits in coffee filters. Each want something. By all means, they’re gonna get them!

This ensemble of actors is passionate and careful. Evocative until the last lamp blinks. Each performance never once feels unpassionate: It’s true these lines are cared for. Tuzanbach (Michael Angelo Smith) is tender and nervous. Kulygin (by Danny Turek), is played up to his transparency. His love for Masha is enough, and he’s happy. Bradley Iorio is Andrey, the brother of the Three Sisters. Iorio creates a brother hung by his defeat (his entry in Act Four as a poor, broken Andre is fervid). Vershinin, (Dan Poppen) speaks most hungry for a happy life. Zealous and most likely to break into song, he woos married Masha through jazz-teque serenades.

By Ella Pennington

By Ella Pennington

Act Two: (Sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip / The music's for the sad man).

Opens with “clowns doing clown things.” A dance party collapsed by Gloria Imseih Petrelli’s intense Natasha. Imseih Petrelli’s monologue is given center stage, speaking into a light bulb. “I wanted grace to be a muscle all people have,” Imseih Petrelli’s Natasha admits.

These three sisters: Olya (Millie Rose), Masha (Maiya Corral) and Irina (Park Williams) have a desire to get out / feel / even at their own demises. But it’s when they are collectively on stage when the sisters are at their most moving. It is in the way each actress works into each other, feeding off each sister’s longing. Millie Rose is the voice of reason, playing the despondent Olya, who feels painfully yearnful next to the confident Irina. Irina, so distracted on her desire to move to Moscow, can’t shake the idea she might not get what she wants. Maiya Corral (Masha and Playwright) is a fast talker, creating a Masha that wants to escape boredom by running into the instrumentals (in this case, a singing Vershinin). Her breakdown upon Vershinin’s leaving is wrenching. Kulygin (Turek) stays by her side, simply content with her near-ness.

By Ella Pennington

By Ella Pennington

Act Three and Four: (A dance on the hill and nothing more. / All we need).

Begins with a flood light and a small table center stage. Olya hates meanness, it “makes her sick.” These sisters grow increasingly despairing as the folds of their lives don’t come out as expected. They dramatically sulk on the floor. They burst into tears. They drink, but the party’s over. “You don’t see it? You don’t see it?” the drum clock breaks. Andrey plays piano for the last few times. Natasha stands up for her claim to authority, stacking herself up on shelves and books. A throne to the kingdom she took: “The world isn’t pretty, it’s what keeps you alive.”

Lights of red. An Empty stage. Olya is sniffling in the dark.


Chekhov’s original script entailed themes of hope, love and loss. The Neighborhood Theater Company wants you to listen to those themes loud and clear. Desire is just desire. Everything could flat line (why not dance it out)? The Neighborhood’s reiteration is a mirage of feelings as feelings come, erupting as they go. The overarching sound of the Undead Circus Band and yells from the cast in overarching dialogue is a dynamic reflection of human detail. From Andrey’s piano solos to the background hums of the sisters’ defeats, the musical composition assists in the deepest sensation of wanting. It’s moments like these when this interpretation of Three Sisters reaches their stride. Desire reveals itself through the noise.

Three Sisters is written by Anton Chekhov (& Maiya Corral for the Neighborhood Theater) running until June 15th At The Ravenswood Fellowship Church, 4511 N Hermitage Ave. Tickets can be purchased here. It is Directed by Kadin McGreevy. Official Cast: Maiya Corral (Masha), Park Williams (Irina), Millie Rose (Olya), Gloria Imseih Petrelli (Natasha), Micheal Angelo Smith (Tuzenbach), Bradley Lorio (Andrey), Dan Poppen (Vershinin), Sarah Wisterman (Solyony), Colin Morgan (Chebutykin), Danny Turek (Kulygin), Jenn Geiger (Fedotik), Anna Klos (Ferapont), & Lo Miles (Anfisa). Music by the Undead Circus Band. Tickets are $10.

My Heart Is Still Waiting: A Necessary Critique on Theatre Talkbacks

Artemisia_FallFest2018_WebInvite.jpg

written by Gloria Imseih Petrelli

Every year for the past seven, Artemisia Theatre puts on a fall festival of 6 full length new play readings performed one a night at The Edge theatre. With a self proclaimed commitment to finding new feminist works, Artemisia’s staff seek plays that center “women who have agency, independence, and are the focal point of their own narratives,” according to their mission statement. From those six, one will be chosen by the artistic director to be eventually produced in full. Following each play is a talkback billed to focus on, “empowerment, inclusion and diversity”.

I’ll begin this review by saying I (and everyone with half a heart and their NPR push notifications turn on) have been enveloped by heaviness and anxiety this week in light of the hearings for Supreme Court Justice and anti-choice Zack Morris wannabe, Brett Kavanaugh for the sexual assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Because of this, a night of feminist theatre would be a welcome respite from a world that consistently betrays and disappoints feminist ideals. I wanted to be immersed in art, surrounded by likeminded people who weren’t trying to invade my uterus or defund arts programs from public schools.

I saw Every Waiting Heart by Lauren Ferebee, a play about the tumultuous relationship between a single mother and her rebellious daughter as the mother navigates her newfound journey into Evangelical Christianity, with flashbacks to the 1800s of their pioneer great grandma loosely tied to the present by a passing mention of a memory of her. I’ll be honest: the play needs some work. Ferebee has a clear handle on language and creating clear, distinctive voices for her characters. If at times confusing, narratively speaking, I was clear about what each character wanted and why. The choice was made to omit the reading of stage directions, which I really feel could have alleviated a lot of this confusion, for me at least. But these kinks are natural, expected, and celebrated at a reading. I don’t view staged readings as finished products (I’m not sure why they’re ever billed that way, just in general) which is why this reflection ended up being more about my experience as an audience member that night than anything the play specifically. I was looking forward to the talkback; I really like that most of the theatrical experiences I’ve had in the last year have been followed by talkbacks. When they’re done right, they do a fantastic job at chipping away at the accepted form of modern American theatre and I’m excited to see what lies underneath formality, respectability, and convention, once this chipping is all done.

We are socialized with the idea that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I honestly think this harms art and expression. It doesn’t make space for nuanced critical thoughts and also I don’t want to live my life ruled by a cartoon made in 1942. In these times where making art, especially as a woman, is a political act whether you like it or not, I will not be quiet when something doesn’t sit right with me. A talkback is meant to continue the conversation the playwright begun. Space should be carved out to respectfully and critically engage with tough, sticky ideas with people who may or may not disagree with you, but will meet you with building blocks, not shut doors. Artemisia says their sole goal is to empower women and their stories, and I truly believe that happens more often than not. However, this specific talkback reminded me of math class. The facilitator asked us how this play centered women and left no room for the answer ‘it didn’t’. It was not clear if the talkback was for the benefit of the playwright to go forward with rewrites (as this was billed as a workshop) or simply a conversation about feminism in the context of the play. I would have loved to engage and grapple with the playwright and other audience members about the issues I had and moments I thought had true potential, but I didn’t feel empowered to ask any the questions I had.  And so, I’ll close with the questions that I would have loved to ask that night.

  • Why, as a woman of color living in Chicago, should I care about this story?

  • What inspired you to write this play?

  • Why was there only one actor of color cast?

  • To label yourself as feminist is empty without knowledge and action; why would you call this a feminist play?

THEATER THIRST TRAP: Babes With Blades Theatre Company’s THE LADY DEMANDS SATISFACTION

By Emilie Modaff 
(they/them)

Lady Theodosia (Megan Schemmel), Penelope (Kate Booth), Luitger (Amanda Forman), & Tilly (Ari Kraiman); Photo credit: Joe Mazza

Lady Theodosia (Megan Schemmel), Penelope (Kate Booth), Luitger (Amanda Forman), & Tilly (Ari Kraiman); Photo credit: Joe Mazza

Babes With Blades Theatre Company held its first showcase in 1997. It was a two-day presentation of fights and monologues, intended to bring awareness to the plethora of stage combat-trained women in Chicago. Over 2 decades later, BWB has evolved into a fully-formed and totally badass company that boasts some of the best stage combat-trained babes in town. I always go into a BWB show expecting to have a good time. I also expect to leave with a deep desire to time-travel back to my college days and attend my stage combat classes not stoned. Whoops. Sorry David Woolley!

But, alas. The plot of  “The Lady Demands Satisfaction,” world premiere play written by Arthur M. Jolly and directed by Morgan Manasa. When 15 year old Trothe learns she is to lose her late father’s estate to anyone who bests her in a duel, all hell breaks loose. With the “help” of her two servants, her Queen Of Swords aunt (omg this was supposed to be a niche tarot reference but it also totally works with the play because SWORDS. Wow.), and two bumbling dudes, Trothe learns to stand in her power and demand satisfaction. *Insert reclaiming my time GIF*

Luitger (Amanda Forman) and a disguised Tilly (Ari Kraiman); Photo credit: Joe Mazza

Luitger (Amanda Forman) and a disguised Tilly (Ari Kraiman); Photo credit: Joe Mazza

Here are my top ten thirst traps for this show. Drink up, friends. 

1. The physical comedy in this show is so fun. You know in Scooby Doo when the gang has those “running from the monsters” montages? Those sort of moments are just as funny when done with humans wielding swords and fake mustaches. 

2. There are several moments in the show in which two young lovebirds are courting each other via the passing back and forth of a sweaty handkerchief. The horny drama escalates, along with my heart rate. I won’t spoil this for you but I will say I now believe oral sex and handkerchiefs are now synonymous. “Damn I want to give you handkerchief right now.” Try it on ur next date, with consent! 

3. Using men as vehicles for making fun of men is my new kink. Linsey Falls (Abernathy) has some of the shadiest dialogue in the whole show and he delivers it with a twinkle in his eye that says “on behalf of men, I am sorry.” 

4. Omfg do you want to fall in actual love during a show? This can happen! Just watch 3 seconds of Amanda Forman playing the dashing Prussian fencing master Luitger, and feel your heart explode! They don’t speak English the entire show, yet the audience was with them the entire time. That’s an accomplishment. #nonbinarybbysunite #fuckthebinary

5. Deanalís Resto (Trothe) is a favorite Chicago human of mine, and probably has the best wailing stage cry I’ve ever experienced. They were also serving pastel REALNESS thanks to costume designer Carlie Casas. Where’d you get that lipstick, bb???

6. Kate Booth (Penelope) and Ari Kraiman (Tilly) were like one non-stop Lucy-and-Ethel-in the-chocolate-factory-scene and I want to eat all of their comedic chemistry until I have a tummy ache!!! I hope to see a spin-off with Penelope and Tilly on Netflix within the next year. 

7. Megan Schemmel (Aunt Theodosia) was serving some Meryl-Streep-Devil-Wears-Prada ATTITUDE. What a powerhouse of a swordsperson. Also, I could listen to her roll her R’s for the rest of my life. 

8. I’ve never seen a fight in which both of the people fighting were trying to lose. I want more of that. It was weird and counter-intuitive and those adjectives are tasty to me. Shout out to fight choreographer Samantha Kaufman, who conquered this script like a goddamn warrior.

9. Felipe Carrasco’s (Osric) physical comedy is outstanding. It was like watching a Logan-square sad boi at a poetry open mic, who was learning how to walk, while also maybe being on a psychedelic drug. So many power lunges, so little time. 

10. One of my favorite lines in a play ever (I’m paraphrasing): “I always thought I’d be the first one in my family to marry my true love, but I sort of stabbed him instead.” That is now the title of my autobiography. 

“The Lady Demands Satisfaction” is a fierce, feminist farce. It is a commentary on the inherent, yet consistently overlooked, power of womxn. It is queer as hell. This is a 2 hour soundscape of belly laughter, metal on metal, and whatever the sound of pure heckin joy is. 
 

Osric (Felipe Carrasco) and Trothe (Deanalis Resto); Photo credit: Joe Mazza

Osric (Felipe Carrasco) and Trothe (Deanalis Resto); Photo credit: Joe Mazza

**”The Lady Demands Satisfaction” is the winner of Joining Sword & Pen 2017-18, sponsored since its inception by Fight Master David Woolley, SAFD.

Babes With Blades Theatre Company at City Lit Theater
1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave, (773)-904-0391, babeswithblades.org
Running through August 25
Run Time: 2 hours with an intermission


 

THEATER THIRST TRAP: Jackalope Theatre’s THE LIGHT FANTASTIC

By Emilie Modaff 
(they/them)

35166868_10214324703505128_6311936233723396096_n.jpg

Going into “The Light Fantastic,” written by Ike Holter and directed by Gus Menary, I expected the following: storylines my body and brain didn’t know they were in need of, quick dialogue that makes every actor go “damnit I need this script because the monologues,” references to Chicago culture, expertly crafted digs at the state of our country, and a framework informed by Holter’s experience as a person of color. Emma Couling writes in a NewCity feature on Holter, “He’s given us a voice, a style, and a saga that pushes back against the “gritty,” “white man angrily throws chair” theater reputation we’ve had for years.” Thank goddess for that. To this, I raise my La Croix. 

Gus Menary directs “The Light Fantastic”, a thrilling world premiere, with precision. Each actor is fully alive--living and breathing their storylines, remaining grounded in a world that feels like The X-Files meets Stranger Things with a healthy sprinkle of Twin Peaks. The show begins and ends with a collective gasp. I sunk my teeth into this delicious theatrical experience and devoured it like a goddamn overpriced maple-bacon donut from Stan’s. I wish I could regurgitate this maple-bacon play and eat it again. 

The plot? Eh. I’d rather tell you how this show made me feel instead of rehashing what I hope you’ll go experience yourself. I’ll say this: the devil is a white man, death is inevitable, and nothing is free. 
 

Andrew Burden Swanson and Paloma Nozicka / Photo: Jackalope Theatre

Andrew Burden Swanson and Paloma Nozicka /
Photo: Jackalope Theatre


Here are my top 10 reasons you need to buy tickets to this show like...
45 minutes ago:

1. Diego Colón, one of the funniest dudes in Chicago. It felt to me like Gus directed him in a way that allowed him to elaborate on the Diego we already know and love. Believable is an understatement. If you don’t know Diego Colón...why?

2. The special fx that made me go “k, but how?” Swinging chandeliers, rattling wall decor, a ghost door with a mind of its own...I’m so into it. 

3. Brianna Buckley (Hariet), who I now have an admiration crush on, for her literal perfect delivery, timing, and charm. And honesty and warmth and depth. Ever seen an actor deliver a monologue so hilarious that the audience bursts into applause? She is giving us strong-survivor-standupcomedian realness.

4. Visceral audience reactions. From everyone. We were a damn family after that experience.
 
5. A reference to Capricorns. 

6. Some meta lines that aren’t too meta. Like a solid amount of meta. 

7. Storylines that make you reevaluate what it means to be home. Did I talk about just that, with my therapist, this week? Good chance I did. 

8. The use of the word “Fuckening.” 

9. 100 minutes of “I must now go home and think about my career because holy shit am I even a writer?” (You are. This feeling of self-doubt will pass).

10. Malort jokes. I got sober before I could try it...still laughed my ass off. After this show, I considered relapsing just to try it. Too soon? 

ct-1526499862-swfjqksjh9-snap-image.jpg

Here’s my only criticism, followed by me admitting I’m wrong: The overlapping dialogue hurt my brain at times. I feared missing something important and my anxiety was screaming like Kim K when she lost her diamond earring in the ocean. However, I immediately recognized that that is the point. We don’t speak in soliloquies and we hear what we want to hear. Humans have a hard time listening. We’d rather hear ourselves talk than open ourselves up to the idea that maybe, just maybe, we will not die if we make space for others. The Light Fantastic expands on this idea: that love and kindness are verbs. 

Sprint to this show. Luckily, "The Light Fantastic" has been extended until June 30th. You have 2 extra weeks to experience this masterpiece. 

*I dedicate this review to the man who told me he doesn’t waste his time with non-equity theaters. Eat my shorts. 


Jackalope Theatre Company at Broadway
Armory Park, 5917 North Broadway,
(773)340-2543, jackalopetheatre.org
Running through June 30th
Run Time: 100 minutes, no intermission

Buy tickets here