Earlier this month I attended a performance of Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker by the Belarus Free Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare. Now if you aren't familiar with the story of the Belarus Free Theatre, I encourage you to look them up as it is quite astounding. They have come thousands of miles and faced more hardships than any of us American can imagine to deliver their message. But watching their new play, I had some even deeper realizations about theater.
The subject of their new show, much like their original Being Harold Pinter, is centered around what it's like living under an oppressive regime in Belarus. They show scenes of violence, oppression, and tyranny that often plague our evening news but only seem to happen in far away places with exotic sounding names. To be sure this is important theater. But upon seeing this show, I would argue it is not great theater. And before you crucify me for saying this, let me explain. When thinking back on my experience of Being Harold Pinter, I can't remember any specific moments of the play. And I will admit to the fact that this might just be my experience, but I don't remember any tremendous acting moments or ingenious staging. What I do remember is the general feeling and spirit of the piece and being drawn to the plight of the people before me.
I will probably have the same experience with this second show. And here is my point: that is exactly what theater is supposed to do. It's not about how clever the production is. It is about creating a moment of connection between the performer and audience that will cause change in the audience receiving the story. And the cynical part of me finds it easy to criticize a mostly white upper-class audience that will likely leave their theater and return to their lives and not lift a finger to change the situation half a world away in Belarus. But in the end, I think that that's ok. Because they will have left the theater changed or at the very least talking about and dealing with the challenging topics they saw in the ninety minute performance.
That was certainly the case for my wife and myself. We left talking more about the content of the play than we normally do. We spent our time discussing the issues rather than poor directing choices, poorly executed design, or weak casting. And sure you can explain that away by the BFT's choice of almost no design and performing in a foreign language. But I have to say if it takes performing in a foreign language for me to engage in the play more, give me more foreign language plays.