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Theatre in Review: Intractable Woman: A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya (PlayCo/122CC)

Stacey Yen, Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Even as the air continues to thicken with the current American president's paeans to various dictators and constant cries of "fake news," I draw your attention to Anna Politkovskaya, for whom journalism was a matter of life and death. Politkovskaya's relentlessly detailed coverage of the wars in Chechnya tore away the Potemkin village fa├žade erected by Vladimir Putin, exposing the ugly realities of Russia's post-Soviet adventurism. It's bad enough for reporters when the powerful lash out, calling them liars and criminals; Politkovskaya ended up in the elevator of her apartment building, in a pool of blood.

In Intractable Woman, the Italian playwright Stefano Massini (who recently scored a triumph with The Lehman Trilogy at London's National Theatre, soon to be seen at Park Avenue Armory) has devised a kind of theatrical memoir, in which Politkovskaya, portrayed by three actresses, recounts her experiences in Chechnya. This strategy is an end in itself -- the performers do not represent different sides of Politkovskaya's personality or stages of her life -- yet it feels essential to the piece's success. The manner in which the women swiftly, almost clinically, hand off the text to each other lends a lively staccato tempo to what otherwise might have been an oppressive experience. Given the inventory of depravities described, it's a wonder some audience members don't flee the auditorium in horror.

Politkovskaya was a coolly accurate reporter of even the most atrocious events, and Intractable Woman tips its hand early when she recalls one morning in Kurchaloj, a Chechen town where "it's almost like the village emerged from the pipeline or sprouted up around it, like those reddish mushrooms around there that sometimes attach themselves to tree trunks at night." (Throughout, Paula Wing's crystalline translation provides words filled with a bleak poetry.) Looking on, the reporter sees a truck pull up. "A basin comes out through the window. And from the basin the two guys take out a kind of tattered ball. A red ball. They let it drain onto the ground. It's a head. A human head. Hanging on a hook." It's a measure of Intractable Woman's power that this moment, awful enough to climax any play, is a relatively minor incident compared to the parade of horrors that follows.

The text sketches in Chechnya's long, fraught relationship with Russia, which boils down to a war drawn out over more than two centuries. Among the more startling revelations, we hear that "Stalin had them deported en masse. In three days, the entire Chechen population was moved to Kazakhstan. Territorial zoning, Soviet style. Ethnic redistribution. Men, women, the elderly, children: They only returned home 13 years later: 1957." Meanwhile, Russia undergoes its own internal convulsions as the Soviet regime collapses, replaced by the brief, hopeful period of perestroika, followed by chaos under Boris Yeltsin, who often appears in public hopelessly drunk. "Things go backward: Somebody says: 'At least the KGB worked: It maintained order. Order that doesn't exist anymore." The stage is set for the Russian population to react with complaisance when the government commits crimes against human rights.

The crimes are more awful than most of us can imagine. Russian Army units, consisting of orphans and the dregs of society, show a numbing indifference to the sanctity of life. One soldier, named Sasha, casually reveals that he and his colleagues have a quota of three or four deaths a day, following up the comment with a request for a cigarette. He adds that he often runs up the numbers by means of a mass murder technique known as the "human bundle," which I can't bring myself to describe. A doctor, working in the most primitive conditions in a crumbling hospital, notes that "rape is legal here. If you assault a woman no one will do anything." Under the reign of the governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, who relies on paramilitary troops, "they have exterminated a quarter of the original population." Intractable Woman raises many thorny political questions, but, beyond that lies the festering possibility that mankind is, at heart, bestial in a way that would leave even Thomas Hobbes groping for an explanation.

And, if only because of the degradation to which they are exposed, the Chechens give as good as they get. Referring to a suicide bomber who drives a truck into the wall of the legislature, Politkovskaya muses, "Chechens are going to blow up other Chechens. Their own kind. Sometimes it is said: like animals. But animals don't kill their own kind this way." A Chechen terrorist, part of the notorious 2002 hostage crisis at the Dubrokva Theatre in Moscow, tells the journalist, "What do you think we are, beggars? I have a university degree. My wife is a doctor. Behind those balaclavas over there, there are teachers, engineers." Such tactics play into Russian hands. We hear about a popular television series in which tall, handsome Russian soldiers are pitted against toothless, cackling Chechen rebels: "They steal, they take drugs, they betray each other. One kills his wife. Another sells his children. They play attacks on Moscow. They laugh about it." The name of the series? The Just War.

There is much more to Intractable Woman , including a detailed account of trying to get through one day in Grozny, where the only available decent food and water must be purchased from the army at extortionate rates, electricity is elusive, two hours a day are spent at roadblocks, criminal gangs lurk everywhere, and packs of wild dogs tear people apart. In an account of the Beslan school siege, Politkovskaya wonders, "Will I support the heroin- and morphine-fueled terrorists, who took 1,128 hostages in a gym on the first day of school? Or, on the other hand, will I support the army, who used flamethrowers against ten-year-old kids?" A sequence in which an old man, trying to discover the fate of his arrested grandson, is made to run errands for an official, is like something out of an absurdist farce by Ionesco. Gradually, Politkovskaya realizes how deeply she is in peril: She wakes up in a hospital, having been poisoned. And then there is her grinding regular routine: "Every six days, an article comes out, and I am hauled before a judge. Among thugs, thieves. They're there for robbery, for theft, for rape. Me for journalism."

Intractable Woman isn't a play in the conventional sense: There is no conflict, no real drama, just a series of terrible events as seen through the journalist's camera eye. Yet the details are so gripping that it is impossible to look away, no matter how much one may wish to. It's a tribute to the taut direction of Lee Sunday Evans that the piece never becomes forbidding; the three-person cast -- Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub, and Stacey Yen -- specializes in a highly disciplined delivery that evokes these ghastly events without wallowing in them. Each performer is possessed of considerable charisma, a quality that is much needed here.

Adding to the feeling of authenticity is Marsha Ginsberg's set, which depicts a blandly institutional interior -- perhaps a meeting room in an Eastern European embassy. Exotic touches include the baby blue walls, strawberry colored chairs, Russian and Chechen flags, and a photo of Vladimir Putin. The space is frequently transformed by Masha Tsimring's lighting, with its bold changes of angle, intensity, and color temperature. Junghyun Georgia Lee has sensibly and attractively dressed the actresses in outfits that are almost, if not quite, identical. Stowe Nelson's sound effects include choral singing, a radio, and some unsettling explosions.

It's easy to feel that Politkovskaya died in vain; after all, Putin's grip has not been loosened and Russia continues to sow chaos and death around the world. Yet, conveying the truth is, in the long run, never a waste. Most of us have become so inured to attempts to discredit reputable journalists -- not to mention semi-official government organs like Fox News, which regurgitate whatever nonsense they are given -- that it's easy to forget what is at stake. For this reason alone, the time has never been riper for Intractable Woman, and, thanks to its superb PlayCo production, its message comes through loud and clear: Journalists are, by nature, irritants to those who would mold reality to suit their own purposes; this is what makes them essential. It isn't easy to constantly speak truth to power, but without those capable of doing so, the rest of us would be in big, big trouble. -- David Barbour

(26 September 2018)

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