Chicago wasn't on the itinerary when Belarus Free Theater slipped out of Alexandr Lukashenko's Soviet-style police state a year ago: the company had a date to perform at New York's Under the Radar Festival. But slipping back into Belarus turned out not to be an option. Lukashenko had given himself yet another term as president in December 2011, and was cracking down hard on the resulting protests. Already considered an outlaw troupe, BFT could expect serious trouble if they went back home. So in early 2012, a hastily formed consortium (the Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare theaters, Northwestern University, and the League of Chicago Theatres) invited them to come here instead. For thanks they gave us Being Harold Pinter, an original work that juxtaposes Pinter's Nobel acceptance speech with the testimony of Belarusan political prisoners. Reader critic Justin Hayford called it "thrilling" and "sobering."
Now BFT is back, this time on purpose, performing Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. The subject again is repression, but the focus is on the ways in which political tyranny warps human relationships—especially human sexual relationships. New York Times critic Ben Brantley described it as offering a "jagged mosaic of vignettes that portray a world in which violence enforces silence, and sex and pleasure are seldom synonymous."
I got a look at a video of Minsk, 2011 but missed a lot because it was roughly made and I couldn't read the English supertitles above and behind the actors. BFT has a very physical approach, though, and what came through in the images the ensemble created was by turns harsh and lyrical—ugly and exceptionally painful yet full of the diffident tenderness that comes of loving a place that doesn't seem capable of loving one back.