Stages

Review: At Red Tape Theatre, We Can All Be Pussy Riot–and If We’re Not, Why Aren’t We?

Pussy Riot in the cathedral. Photo by Austin Oie.

They say all you need to become a punk rock band are three chords and the truth. Punk songs are short, loud and not musically sophisticated. But they usually have a visceral message. In 2012, a group of Russian activists used the music to protest Vladimir Putin’s rule and speak out for feminism and LGBTQ rights and against religious hypocrisy.

We Are Pussy Riot (or Everything is PR) at Red Tape Theatre is the raucous story of this protest and its aftermath, set in Moscow where freedom of expression is trashed by a government steeped in oppression and dictatorship. Barbara Hammond’s 2015 play is based on the Pussy Riot activists’ brief protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012. Staged on the eve of the Russian election, their punk prayer was “Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit” and “Virgin Mary, chase Putin away!” Red Tape’s new production, directed by Kate Hendrickson, is based on the Pussy Riot collective’s cathedral protest, arrest, trial and imprisonment. The production’s over-the-top style may seem like a caricature but it is oh so germane to our political environment today.

The play takes us through Pussy Riot’s vibrant act of protest and their tribulations, with Sergei (William Rose II) as narrator. (He’s the only character in the play not based on a real person.) Sergei is a historian and a professor and throughout the play, he introduces snippets of Russian history—and figures like Vladimir the First, Peter the Great and Genghis Khan—that led to modern times. Sergei is found guilty of protesting and sentenced to prison.

The Pussy Riot collective probably had about a dozen members but the three best known are those who were arrested and tried; they are the heroes of this play. Masha (Jalyn Greene), Katya (Stephanie Shum) and Nadya (Emily Nichelson) are the centerpiece of the play. (Katya appealed her sentence and was released, but Masha and Nadya served their time.)

A reporter asks them, “What do you say to people who say your music is … terrible? And Nadya replies, “We don’t want to be good. We want to be heard.”

Zoë DePreta, Casey Chapman, Emilie Modaff. Photo by Austin Oie.

The 95-minute spectacle is performed at audience level and on a raised stage covered with Pussy Riot posters and other protest mementoes. During the trial and its aftermath, Vladimir Putin (Casey Chapman) is a constant presence, seated at a desk above the trial area. He rarely speaks but frequently bangs a carved wooden animal gavel to punctuate the proceedings. Putin and the patriarch (Joseph Ramski) have a church/state bromance, which cleverly symbolizes the relationship. In an early scene, Putin and the patriarch do a cheek-to-cheek dance. A devout Russian woman (Ann Sonneville) scrubs the cathedral floor and complains about the blood and the protestors; she tells us that during Soviet times her mother and grandmother had to hide their faith—and now she’s disgusted that these girls mock it.

Most of the 12 actors play multiple roles, such as Emily Modaff, who plays the judge and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and human rights activist who was assassinated in 2005. Dionna Addai plays the defense and a British feminist and Zoë DePreta plays the prosecutor and a doctor who attends to Sergei in prison. The versatile Nora King plays a world press correspondent, Madonna and Marilyn Monroe. And Alec Phan is an omnipresent guard and security officer. Throughout the production, the whole cast performs as members of a troupe called “yurodivy,” or “holy fools” from the Orthodox tradition of mad saints who sang hymns to reveal the insanity of the world. (The czars ignored them, in case they might be right.)

Pussy Riot played and shouted for exactly 48 seconds before being stopped and dragged out of the church by guards. That night they uploaded a video of their protest to YouTube and it went viral. Within hours, they were considered enemies of both church and state and were arrested and tried for hooliganism and “inciting religious hatred.” Had this happened in Soviet times, we would never have heard of Pussy Riot again and the protestors would not have survived. But in 2012, the story of this piece of performance art was taken up by Western news media and social media. The women were found guilty and sentenced to two years in labor camps but they also became international media stars.

The play’s subtitle, (or Everything is PR) refers to the remarkable public relations campaign that resulted from Pussy Riot’s actions. It began a debate that pitted youth against tradition, East against West, and church against state.

Jalyn Greene (Masha), Stephanie Shum (Katya) and Emily Nichelson (Nadya). Photo by Austin Oie. Nadya wears a No Pasaran (They Shall Not Pass) shirt symbolizing the left-wing cause in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and similar causes today.

Moscow may be 5,000 miles from Chicago and you may think our Constitution protects us from oppression such as Masha, Nadya and Katya endured. But our Constitution is built on the rule of law, which only works as long as the justice system functions properly. In times like these—when courts are being packed with judges who may not share the founders’ belief in Constitutional rights—Pussy Riot tells us, be afraid. Be very alert to efforts to suppress our rights. Our rights—to speak, to publish, to assemble, to vote—hang in the balance.

Playwright Hammond said in an interview, “I would say, and I think they would say, we can all be Pussy Riot—and if we’re not, why aren’t we?  Are we happy with the status quo?  Do we value order and tradition more than self-expression?” And she adds a comment on the activists’ branding acumen, “Pussy Riot made themselves undeniable with their name. if they had called themselves Feminists Against Putin, we would never have heard of them.”

As We Are Pussy Riot draws to a close, the holy fools don the colorful balaclavas like the protestors wear. They introduce themselves to us one by one, answering the questions the judge asks each defendant: What is your name? Place of birth? Your date of birth?

Hammond’s script is based on transcripts, letters, interviews and media coverage. Hendrickson’s direction usually succeeds in keeping the wild series of events in check enough to capture your understanding. Sometimes the dialogue sound quality is muddy, partly no doubt because of the large space and hard surfaces. Another sound check by sound designer Steve Labedz might mitigate the problem. Scenic design is by Chris Popio, Aaron Arbiter and Hendrickson. The dramatic lighting effects are by David Goodman-Edberg. Movement design is by Charlotte Long. Costumes are by Rachel Sypniewski.

Here’s a handheld video recording of the actual Pussy Riot protest in the cathedral, until the three are dragged off by security police.

We Are Pussy Riot (or Everything Is PR) by Red Tape Theatre continues through July 6 at The Ready, 4546 N. Western Ave. in Lincoln Square. Performances are Friday-Monday. Tickets are free; reserve them here.

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