by Carole Di Tosti
Intractable Woman by Stefano Massini is a powerful memoriam to Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who wrote “just the facts” in eye-witness accounts covering The Second Chechen War, fought between Russian military and Chechen “rebels.” Directed by Lee Sunday Evans, who dramatizes the events, some of which are too horrifying even to imagine, the play soars. As we watch with empathy and incredulity events which represent man’s inhumanity to men and women, we admire the courage of those who have the audacity to hope and struggle for a better life away from oppression.
The production which stars Stacey Yen, Nadine Malouf and Nicole Shalhoub, through initial brief commentary, identifies the historical, inimical relationship between Russia and Chechnya, whose citizens for over two centuries greeted each other with addresses referencing “liberty” rather than a simple “good day.” Gradually, the role of the journalist emerges and the actors relate Anna’s accounts of some of the most gruesome events she sees. These entail references to the brutality both the Russian soldiers and Chechens visited upon innocent women and children and the complete revocation of freedom to walk the rubble strewn streets of the capital of Grozny, Chechnya, where most of the related events occur.
The prime difficulty with the production may be the numerous details, facts, descriptions of the representative events that Anna Politkovskaya witnessed that are delivered sometimes as commentary and narration. I found the information to be fascinating in the grotesque. Others may find the information expositional. There are periods of time where the action is described in Anna’s words and not dramatized.
The actresses do reveal their amazing skills in presenting Anna’s accounts. They mirror the way she attempted to get the information out to her readers as reportage without editorializing or showing glimmers of emotion or anger at what she witnessed. The playwright’s approach belies the medium of dramatization and weakens the power of her reports. Though the instruments of the actresses are adroit, and they manage to be exceptional despite the tremendous difficulties of the script, the narrative elements sometimes falter creating dead spots.
However, the segments where there is dialogue and characterization blaze with electricity, for example when Anna interviews a Russian Colonel or when an elderly Chechen attempts to locate his grandson and must barter all he can scrape up for information to his whereabouts. These dramatizations strike with poignance and power. Also, the director and actresses do a superb job with the poetic cadences of Massini’s writing. Such moments are stirring, yet numbing. And that is the thematic point. For after a while the brutality, the insanity of terrible events, the rapes of young women, the bombs severing limbs and victims struggling to crawl carrying limbs, etc., harden the emotions of the listener who become like the citizens of war, inured to the devastation, bloodshed, starvation, dehydration, disease and the death of loved ones.
The director has set events in a room with light-blue walls and red, spare auditorium chairs. Here, after the reportage, a Russian delivers the final word in a press conference about Anna. On either side of a main door through which the actresses enter and leave are the Chechen flag and the Russian flag. The actresses use the chairs as props during vital scenes between characters. This staging is effective and helps us visualize the action.
The setting in the sterile space is ironic. War is created in benignly furnished, sterile rooms. Bureaucrats inhabit benign, sterile rooms far from the blood-soaked, earthen streets and garbage dumps of oozing, black slime, where enemies of the state are held because there are no adequate buildings left standing to house prisoners. And on the wall to the left is the smiling, benign face of President Vladimir Putin who most certainly gave the orders to poison Anna Politkovskaya in an attack which leaves her reeling after she returns from one of her reportage sessions in Grozny.
The production, if anything, solidifies that Anna Politkovskaya was martyred to bring us the truth. As an “intractable,” incapable of being cowed by the poisoning that nearly wiped her out, additional orders were given to have her assassinated with a bullet to the brain. We are left knowing that in her death, her words ring louder than ever. Bullets cannot silence truth-tellers.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
Intractable Woman is a must-see. Kudos goes to the creative team. The play runs eighty minutes with no intermission at 150 First Avenue, 122CC Second Floor Theater until 14 October. For tickets go to http://playco.org/tickets/