Monday, September 28, 2009

August: Osage County

With more incest, deception, abuse, and dysfunction than a Greek tragedy, August: Osage County is not your typical family drama. Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning, three-hour-plus saga is intricately written, exhaustingly well-acted, and stomach-wrenching to watch.

At 82, Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons blew all pastoral images of a Great Plains family matriarch out the window with her abrasive, pill-addicted character. Her poet husband has just walked out the door and into the lake, causing her three daughters and other assorted family members to come home for his funeral in a cloud of old hurts and confusion. A family this dysfunctional trapped in one house is a ticking time bomb, and with each lie that unravels, no one escapes unscathed: adultery, child abuse, addiction, incest, and general cruelty.

The howlings and shrieks of a family in pain, with the ramblings of the oft-high mother, made the show a bit hard to hear and understand at times, but it did add a distinct sense of mass confusion. Shannon Cochran, as eldest daughter Barbara, matched Parsons in sheer power on stage, as she slowly grew into a slightly younger but equally cruel version of her mother. The feeling of entrapment in their Great Plains home is palpable, and the play ends with no more hope than when it began. Unlike the Greek tragedies where someone usually repents after the bloodshed, the family of August: Osage County is left with nothing but their own wreckage with which to try to salvage any kind of life.

Friday, September 25, 2009


The Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre in Minsk. Because they are not approved by the Belarusian Committee of Culture, their performances are illegal and must be performed in secret locations that their audience members discover when they call a special phone number hours before to prevent being caught by the police. Even with such precautions, the actors and company have been arrested and have been black-listed from state-approved jobs.

Their performance of DISCOVER LOVE at the University of San Diego's Institute for Peace and Justice was a part of their international tour to promote awareness of their little-discussed home country, which they say is the last dictatorship in Europe. Three actors and an almost bare stage tell the true story of Irina and her husband Anatoli in Russian with English supertitles on a screen, which sometimes featured video projections. Anna Solomianskaya plays Irina from childhood into a young woman who meets, falls passionately in love with, and marries a dynamic and uniquely intelligent man. The portrait of their marriage as they struggle to make ends meet in poverty-stricken Minsk while caring for their two young daughters is searingly truthful and beautiful. After years of exhausting work, the two somehow manage to become successful enough to live comfortably. Anatoli is passionate about helping others achieve similar success, and just as the pair begins to discover their love all over again, one night Anatoli does not come home.

Irina frantically searches for her husband, praying that there was some sort of accident that prevented him from calling home. The police raid their home before she even has a chance to report him missing, saying she might be the culprit. Soon they find pieces of his car and the true story unravels: Anatoli and his friend were attacked in his car, dragged into the forrest, beaten, and shot in the back of the head by government forces as a result of their public support for a democratic Belarus. Irina is reeling with heartache and despair as she realizes that he was a victim of a "forced disappearance," a common fate for anyone who opposes the Belarusian government: Men simply don't come home. Sometimes their bodies are found, like Anatoli's, and sometimes they are not.

But as tragic as the story is, it is not about Belarusian politics. It is completely and absolutely about the incredible love between two people and its power. Anatoli allowed Irina to discover love. After the performance, co-writer and director Nikolai Khalezin said that people who see the show as a political play have missed the point: "It is not a political play. It is a love story that is interrupted by politics." Someone in the audience asked Solomianskaya, who played, Irina, how she conjured such an emotional and powerful performance from someone else's story every night. She recounted watching the real Irina watch DISCOVER LOVE from the audience, and replied, "There is no story that doesn't belong to you. If you can imagine even for a moment that that could happen to you... how can someone have such strength?"

The Belarus Free Theatre has no home, no money, and no support in Minsk. Yet DISCOVER LOVE is one of the most beautiful love stories and powerful artistic performances I have ever seen. The passion, wit, and intelligence of this group, coupled with incredible talent and bravery is one of the most inspiring examples of theatre as a vehicle for the human experience.