Minsk, 2011—see it now, see it often

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Minsk, emerging from the chrysalis of despotism
  • Nicolai Khalezin
  • Minsk, emerging from the chrysalis of despotism
There's no doubt that you should see Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker before its brief Chicago run ends on Super Bowl Sunday (February 3, for those of you who aren't into gladiatorial spectacles). The question is whether you should try to see it twice. Because, unless you speak fluent Russian, you're likely to miss a lot in a single viewing. And, I'm telling you, you don't want to have that happen.

Devised by Belarus Free Theatre—which produces (indeed, exists) in defiance of the Stalinist regime of Belarusan strongman Alexander Lukashenko—Minsk, 2011 is less a "reply" than an homage to punk literary provocateur Kathy Acker: Like her, it uses sexuality as a way to get at the heart of a culture. On the evidence, the heart of Belarusan culture has been shattered.

In a series of graphic, associatively connected vignettes, the show's nine cast members explore the psychic and social dysfunction brought on by tyranny. A man takes us on a tour of his scars, explaining that since women find them sexy, Minsk must be the sexiest city on earth. Three women perform for the dead-eyed bureaucrat who can license them as erotic or blackball them as pornographic. We spend a long, wild, brutish night at an underground sex club. We watch the tale of a young woman whose callow dream of being a lounge dancer ends up making her desperately ill. And, in the work's uncanny climax, we see another young woman—an embodiment of Minsk itself—emerge enraged and twisted from a brush with the state.

As horrific as Minsk, 2011 can be, much of it is offered in a black-comic style that—against all odds—makes it feel energetic and fresh. There's even a bittersweet interlude in which the actors drop all pretense and talk about their own relationships with the title city, the capital of Belarus and their home despite its attempts to drive them away. Trouble is, the piece is so verbally and visually rich that you can spend its 90-minute running time straining to keep up with the English-language supertitles while trying not to miss a single stage picture. Can't be done, really. Better see it twice.

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