Arts & Events
Last Thursday night I came home from TERRORiSTKA[sic], a play about Chechen terrorists by Rebecca Bella at the Berkeley City Club. Before I started to write this review, I clicked on the front page of the New York Times online. The Pakistan Taliban fumbles the bomb in Times Square and in Red Square US GI’s march in the May Day Parade. The play I saw was about striking back at the Russian Empire that maltreats the Chechens; the US is killing civilians with drones in Afghanistan; now the two Empires march together. I just shook my head at this variation on George Lucas’s vision…and at the timeliness of this play.
The hot-button topic of this play is women suicide bombers in Chechnya. Many of the bombings and the much publicized school invasion a few years back involved many women terrorists, and now they are strapping on the C-4 in the ultimate commitment to their cause. (FYI Chechnya is north of Georgia, Turkey and Iran on the southern tip of the old USSR between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea—I had to look it up, too.)
Its source is a true story that resonated with the playwright: a would-be terrorist—a woman—decides not to blow up herself and her target and walks away from the bomb, but a Russian soldier is killed disarming it, so she is arrested and imprisoned. The story explores the use and abuse of women, wherein the cell gives the lost and rebellious girl a family just like any pimp or cult does, while reminding her that “a woman without a family is like a drying twig.” It prods her to use her sexuality while dealing with police in one breath (“You won’t feel the kiss with Allah’s purpose in your mind”), while cautioning her to preserve her modesty with the next breath, then implies that runaways from the training camp get gang-raped into submission.
TERRORiSTKA is an extended reminiscence of an action, a regretful looking back from a prison cell on things lost. It doesn’t have the reversals, surprises, revelations, plot points, or the moment-to-moment anticipation which we use to judge plays that zing. But it lingers in the memory because of the abuse and injustice it records and an occasional memorable moment.
It starts with a strong first moment: a large young blonde guard (Andy Strong wearing a red tie and latex gloves) wrestles a beautiful young female prisoner/”jailbird” (Kate Jepson dressed in prison stripes) into a cage and taunts her with all the implicit libidinal tension that comes from such a scene. Wearing latex gloves makes things creepy and clinical with the dread of anticipated blood and other fluids. With Matthew Cowell’s fight direction, their struggling is convincing and sends the blood racing.
The first act is about our heroine’s training at a terrorist camp in the Caucasus Mountains. She is immersed in fundamentalist Islamic scripture by a crone in a chador and hijab (played with a powerful voice by Adrienne Krug), bullied by the commander, wooed by his younger brother, and indoctrinated that herself and her sexuality are tools for Allah and the Chechen people to strike at the White Russian Infidel Oppressor. There is much made of the mountain clansmen Chechens being “black” as opposed to the more Nordic-looking Russians. In a conversation at intermission, the playwright described Chechens as looking like Iranians but photos also show them as somewhat Asiatic. However, the male actors who are cast as Chechens, while bearded, are pretty white-looking themselves and devoid of any stage makeup or hair dye that might resemble that ethnic group.
The second act is about the much-planned train trip to Moscow to blow something up and our heroine with it. While trying to pass for turisti, their encounters with the overbearing and lecherous Russian official—though it may be accurate—casts Muscovites as “the bad guys.”
When they get to the sin pit of the big city, red lights come up and the dialogue switches to rhymed couplets. The poetry is near doggerel, but effective. I’m not sure that this rhyming could have been sustained effectively through the whole play, but using rhyme in this scene heightens the moment and tension and shakes us awake with anticipation of the next thought and completion of the rhyme. Alas, the playwright needs to resolve things on a note of hope with a Kumbaya-like duet between the two lovely voices of the widow and the jailbird. It occurred to me that this work might lend itself toward a treatment as a musical.
Sarah Rose Butler plays our protagonist Zarema with a whiny, post-teenage, wisp of a girl approach which is convincing if annoying; she employs the sneers and faces of disdain by which young people express their emotional reactions to most everything, but her flirtation with the Russian guard shows a range that wasn’t used enough. Her character, like the others, has a personal tragic story that has pushed them to this desperate action. But she ultimately realizes that she just wants have her own apartment, go on a shopping spree, and have boyfriends like many young women. Not the committed stuff of which suicide-bombers are made.
Regrettably, the beats in TERRORiSTKA are repeated—by which I mean the same sort of interaction is acted out in different words repeatedly—so perhaps there isn’t enough material to justify the length, or different expressions of it by the actors need to be explored. Overall, the actors seemed to need more direction on changing intentions and using subtext since their range of expression seemed limited and repetitive.
Playwright Rebecca Bella is a Fulbright scholar who went to St. Petersburg to translate Russian poetry. Her attempt at heightened language and imagery aspires to soar, but never quite gets off the ground. It relies overmuch on aphorisms: if they are of the playwright’s invention, it is commendable since they sound like wise sayings from mountain people. The production toys with the Greek chorus; however, the choral parts are badly recorded and not spoken in the unison that is necessary when many speak the same words. It thereby comes out garbled and devoid of emotional content with an off-putting, momentary echo between voices. The only effective use of poetry doesn’t occur until the Expressionist scene in Moscow late in the play. Other than that, the poetry, when it is used, does not fly.
The space is challenging to work in: a long room with 45 seats on risers on two or three sides. Chad Owen’s set book-ends the far sides of this rectangle with grand red tapestries with platforms beneath them to form a prison on one side and a nursery on the other. The actors entrances were through the door to the hall which was not masked, and the theatrical spell was momentarily broken each time the light flooded in.
Using a mostly bare stage, director Jessica Holt musters good staging ingenuity for this difficult space. The actors need to change position more than on a proscenium stage to avoid blocking the audience’s view by having an actor rooted in one spot too long.
Moving, memorable moment #1: when our heroine Zarema’s fellow fanatics strip her down to her underwear and wrap the explosive device around her bare skin; then they videotape her political pre-suicide statement while in her Islamic cover-everything-but-the-face chador. This was an effective contrast to the mini-skirt and boots Zarema was wearing a moment before to blend in unnoticed in her secret mission.
Moving, memorable moment #2: synchronizing the sound effect with the miming of closing the imaginary train door; it was a magic that escaped my knowledge of stagecraft outside of some dead-on timing by the sound operator.
Moving, memorable moment #3: Molly Holcomb plays Lena, the widow of the Russian soldier who is blown up by the bomb that Zarema walks away from. Lena sings lullabies to her fatherless baby; the lullabies grow more virulent and vicious with ethnic slurs spewed in song: one lyric of a peaceful starry night abruptly turns dark with the image of a Chechen who slithers on the riverbank sharpening his knife. Holcomb has a lovely voice made for lullabies which makes this devolution into macabre imagery more disturbing.
The costumes by Tammy Berlin merit comment. The sparkly shirts and short skirts worn when going undercover to Moscow are what I’ve seen a lot of Russian kids wear in NYC. Putting the old woman in a chador invoked the Greek tragic female character. The Jailbird’s black-and-white bold striped prison costume is almost a monochromatic “motley,” i.e., fool’s clothing. Motley served the important purpose of keeping the fool outside the social hierarchy and therefore not subject to class distinction; since the fool was outside the dress laws, the fool was able to speak more freely. So it is here, that our prisoner is freed to speak her truth.
TERRORiSTKA by Rebecca Bella
Presented by Threshold Theatre
Playing at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant, Berkeley, CA
Thu-Sat 8pm & Sun 5 pm through May 16
Tickets 1-800-838-3006 www.brownpapertickets.com
Info: (415) 891-7235 www.Thethresholdproject.blogspot.com
Written by Rebecca Bell, directed by Jessica Holt, scenic design by Chad Owens, sound design by Gregory Sharpen, costumes by Tammy Berlin, lighting by Alison Ostendorf, movement by Marilee Talkington, fight direction by Matthew Cowell. Fiscal Sponsorship by Counter Pulse.
WITH: Kate Jopson (Jailbird), Andy Strong (Official Shadow), Molly Holcomb (Lena), Geof Libby (Mohamed), Sarah Rose Butler (Zarema), Adrienne Krug (Fatima), Alex Curtis (Rustan).
John A. McMullen II is a free-lance theatre critic; he has advanced degrees in theatre and sometimes wonders if that’s a good thing. Complaints/comments/queries to EyeFromTheAisle@gmail.com