• chitheatretriathlon

'We Are Pussy Riot' at Red Tape Theatre shatters expectations and theatrical conventions

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

From title alone, WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (or) Everything is P.R. invigorates a sense of rebellion and breathlessness; steamrolling past any sort of misogynistic, inhibiting governance or law. Red Tape Theatre continues to deliver producing powerful contemporary pieces, but this time with an edge that doesn't lets its audiences off the hook. The Ready has never felt more shook and due to the space's unsuspecting, conventional exterior it's a perfect setting for this riot to explode.


This performance comes to you as you wait in the lobby. Instead of telling you about an event you weren't privy to, the ensemble recreates the protest the group is famous for inciting. It offers an opportunity for an accurate depiction of events despite what Russia's political figures like the Patriarch and Putin will have you believe. You're now a part of this movement, whether you asked to be or not. And before you can process too much, you're guided by either a security guard or some brightly colored Robin Hoods in disguise into the theatre.


Pictured above: William Rose II (Sergei) in Red Tape Theatre's WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (Or Everything Is P.R.) Photo by Austin Oie.

Directed by Kate Hendrickson and written by Barbara Hammond, the ninety minutes that ensue are fortified by its scrappy, devised nature and accelerate because of its tightly knit, talented ensemble (Dionne Addai, Casey Chapman, Zoë DePreta, Jalyn Greene, Nora King, Emilie Modaff, Emily Nichelson, Alec Phan, Joseph Ramski, William Rose, Stephanie Shum, Ann Sonneville). The story of Pussy Riot is reimagined through a troupe of Yurodivy known as the Holy Fools, a group of performers that in the Russian Orthodox tradition, "strive with imaginary insanity to reveal the insanity of the world". Through this meta lens, the ensemble makes this story come together to bring these very real personalities through larger than life means.


The sensation is akin to scrolling through so many powerful images that it leaves you winded, as nerved as you'd be at a concert or in court. This result is aided by scenic design from Chris Popio, Aaron Arbiter, and Kate Hendrickson which plays with the space feeling like both a church and concert hall. Prisoners and priests, dictators and demonstrators traipse and torment under the watchful eye that looms over the entire backdrop. Charlotte Long orchestrates movement making montages of police brutality, violence, and gender politics sting without exploitation of femme and POC's bodies. Live music composed and arranged by Emilie Modaff, Alec Phan, and Zoë DePreta blur the boundaries of theatre v. performance in a stirring soundscape akin to the renewed rambunctiousness of Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band.


After a ceremonial beginning, the ensemble swiftly scatters like cockroaches consuming the space with prescribing an anecdote or fact that shocks in its commonness, but not believability. Pussy Riot is represented across the whole ensemble and not just through the stellar performances of Greene, Shum, and Nichelson. They break down misconceptions that they're not a band (no tours or CDs), but an idea to stand up for yourself and what's right. In response to the illegal 2012 presidential elections, PR stormed into the Church of Christ the Savior (a crux of significance in Russian history) and ignited protest from the simple utterance: “Virgin Mary, chase Putin away!” The declaration was enough to arrest, process and bring international media attention to the illegal inner workings of Russian rule.


Pictured above: Alec Phan (Guard/Security 2), Jalyn Greene (Masha), Casey Chapman (Vladimir Putin/Security 1), Stephanie Shum (Katya), Emily Nichelson (Nadya) in Red Tape Theatre's WE ARE PUSSY RIOT (Or Everything Is P.R.) Photo by: Austin Oie.

A quasi narrator that provides much needed context as a contrast to the developing trial comes from the tender, determined professor, Sergei (William Rose II). At one point he aptly quips how as a country, "We have not been good to our Annas." He offers a history lesson on Russian politics and religion orchestrated by a flurry of cleaning supplies, shadow play, and audience surrogacy. We learn how this cathedral was blown up by Stalin, reconstructed as a swimming pool, and then restored to its former glory.


Sergei continually has to reinsert himself into the story, representing those who weren't covered during this media buzz and chosen as the face of this resistance. A religiously devout Russian resident poses this question from a different viewpoint asking, "Who gave them authority?" as she indicates the trio. She claims if they were English, we'd hear PR and Putin differently. Sergei's own story seems damned from the start in how he's accused of "beating" a policeman from the protest, and as a result goes on a hunger strike for twenty-two days. It's clear his justice will not see the light of day despite the trio finding freedom again.


The play maintains a fair balance of hearing from PR's fans, critics, and bystanders. Nora King skillfully plays many memorable roles as World Press Corps/Madonna/Marilyn Monroe/Anon P.R. Joseph Ramski's Patriarch flounces his $40,000 gold watch when he's not waltzing and smooching Casey Chapman's Cheeto snacking, Hillary Clinton memoir reading Putin. The two finagle with the "dangers" of feminism and every minute of their shared presence makes you revolt in fear of how Putin was able to pull off a twelve year rule, with six more promised. Chapman embodies all the qualities of a good dictator: sinister, cunning, and smiling as he stabs you in the front.


Injustice is ingrained in Russia with PR's arrest equivocating to a punishment with the pretense of a trial. They aren't read their charges, their defense is struck down and the set oozes blood, the judge literally and shamelessly takes their cues from Putin. Greene shines as Masha in making what she can of their plea known. But the swaggering, sadistic methods of Putin rue the day. This power struggle is most painfully yet eloquently demonstrated when the ensemble births bundled fabric as babies, tending to them under the watchful eye and ear of Putin who sings of blueberry hills and little piggies snatching promise away one 'child' at a time.


The realities of current Russian and American politics can be dismal, but the opposition to their discriminatory policies is far from discouraged here. This audience integral piece allows the relentless radicalness of these artists to wash over you leaving you with an impossible charge to keep going. This story doesn't end when you leave the theatre, but what you do with it after. WE ARE PUSSY RIOT's luxury is experienced from telling a true story that implores its audience to learn and do more. Its ticket might be free, but its lessons are priceless.


*Check out these supplementary activism resources that were included in their program: Lifted Voices, Let Us Breathe Collective, The Hoodoisie, People's Law Office, Chicago Community Bond Fund, Project Nia, Critical Resistance, The Ruckus Society, List of Online Tools for Activists, Fundraising Toolkit.*

© 2019 by Chicago Theatre Triathlon. Proudly created with Wix.com