Off Center Fest Brings Ministry of Counterculture to OC via Belarus Free Theatre

On Inauguration night, the curtain speech given by a member of the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) ended with the wish that U.S. theater artists would never have to create plays against totalitarian rule from exile. The chilling statement, delivered with such kindness, elicited a burst of applause.

The audience had gathered at Segerstrom Center in a hard-to-find-but-impressive room to see Time of Women, which premiered in Belarus in a tiny apartment in 2014. The presence of British citizens and a TV crew were the only reasons the KGB informers surrounding the building didn’t lead to a raid—though that was the last time the apartment was used as a theater. Belarus Free Theatre founders had had to flee the country in 2011, so Time of Women was rehearsed via Skype and performed illegally.

The company, which calls itself “the administrative arm of the Ministry of Counterculture,” continues to perform under the dictatorship, creating new works and campaigning for the social justice issues that inspire each play. The internet links the permanent ensemble still in Belarus with those in exile, who have been given a home by the Old Vic in London. The Ministry of Counterculture is an online platform started by BFT co-founder Nicolai Khalezin, who directed and co-wrote Time of Women, and Georgie Weedon, the third employee of the Al Jazeera English-language launch team. The mission is to “offer a bold … perspective and unique access into the world of arts, free speech, human rights, social justice and everything in between.” (The word alternative was replaced by the ellipsis in that quote, just so you know.)

Anyone in Orange County wanting to connect art and social justice with action should check out its website, which includes a fascinating series of filmed interviews by a 16-year-old Belarus refugee who was smuggled out of the country along with her parents—BFT founders and playwrights of Time of Women—during the violent post-“election” crackdown in 2010.

Time of Women is a play about three dissidents arrested by riot police during that crackdown—Iryna Khalip, Natalya Radina and Nasta Palazhanka. Though the action travels seamlessly, time blurs: We are in the cell where the women are incarcerated and interrogated one moment, then bleeding into a time when they are free to reminisce about their imprisonment. This magically happens throughout. The only sense of time the audience is sure of, is when the electric kettle is plugged in until we see the steam rising from its spout. By play’s end, the ingredients we saw being mixed as we entered the theater have become an apple cake, steamed hot in a crock pot, which one of the actors invites the audience to help itself to as she exits the last curtain call. It’s a candle-less cake for us to wish ourselves free of fascist rule.

As audience members take a piece, a few also snatch one of the tangerines spread out on the big rug center stage. Some of us linger, hoping the actors will emerge so we can ask them how they experience the contrast of performing in this towering non-theater space at Segerstrom versus the underground places they play in Belarus. Or how they adjust to audience reaction to the funny lines, as Russian speakers laugh a little before those of us reading the English subtitles projected so far above the actors’ heads.

The production focuses on the women’s resilience and breakdowns without capitulation, especially the turning upside-down of their lives. One thought she’d prefer solitary so she wouldn’t have to use a communal pot, but she gets over it as she realizes the only people she can trust are in the cell with her. Another recounts how her dreams in the prison were brimming with hidden messages, but once free she is haunted only in her waking hours. All the while, the KGB interrogator fascinates yet repulses with his smart tactics, self-awareness and constant slurping of steaming instant noodles.

The performance has no hidden messages for us; they are all overt. Belarus Free Theatre came together in 2005 in response to total censorship of expression, and they continue the resistance in ways we just may need to implement here in 1984/2017.

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