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.