By Katina Beniaris
Based in a country formerly allied to the Soviet Union and currently subjected to harsh censorship laws, Belarus Free Theatre remains fearless in their second U.S. visit with a contemporary twist on this Shakespeare tragedy about an aging king.
Five years after their Chicago debut, the political theater company returned to Chicago Shakespeare Theater in February with the American premiere of their searing production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Directed by Vladimir Shcherban, this “King Lear” brings a compelling and raging approach to the classic Shakespeare play by connecting it to the theater company’s rich and complicated history.
You must understand the power behind Belarus Free Theatre to appreciate their shows. Formed in 2005 under one of Eastern Europe’s last surviving dictatorships, the underground theater company has had dangerous run-ins with the Belarus authorities in the past. Uncensored art is classified as a criminal activity under Belarus’s strict government. Many company members have served time in prison and lost their jobs or gone into hiding as a result of their productions on the oppressive conditions in their homeland. The company’s resistance movement was recently the focus of the HBO documentary, “Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus.”
Performed in Belarusian (a variant of Russian that is the country’s official language) with English subtitles, “King Lear” draws parallels between the title character’s collapsing country and current conditions in the Belarus government.
However, this parallel doesn’t seem clear at times. Audience members unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s storyline might be confused throughout the play, especially if they also don’t know about the theater company’s origins. Belarusian folk songs and dances erupt when Lear divides the land among his daughters. Famous Shakespearian quotes are missing in the play’s English-language supertitles.
This approach might not resonate with everyone, but the theater company remains consistent with their cultural and social message. The play’s passions run high as the characters assert their own power. Anger is as rampant as the blood and dirt scattered across the stage. There’s madness when Lear cracks eggs and Edgar plays with human waste (represented by realistic, chunky peanut butter).
At Feb. 5 performance, several actors brought their considerable best to the play. Aleh Sidorchyk provides a fresh and modern portrayal of the titled character melting down to madness. His energetic voice throughout the production makes Lear seem more like a tragic hero than a withering old man. The character of Edgar (played by Siarhei Kvachonak), Gloucester’s only legitimate heir is first portrayed as unsympathetic. But, disguised as Poor Tom and covered in “peanut butter,” he runs around insanely until he runs into Lear. Kvachonak presents quite the striking contrast on stage to portray Edgar’s disintegration.
While this “King Lear” might be confusing at times, the company created visually impressive effects with minimal scenery. The notable storm scene blows us away with such simple items as a blue tarp and drops of water.
Shakespeare’s tale of a king fighting to keep his grip on sanity takes out transcendent power in Belarus Free Theatre’s production. The defiance in their retelling rings true because they know so well how power in their own oppressive Belarus government has affected their own lives.
This production ran at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier from Feb. 5-14. For more information about the theater, visit www.chicagoshakes.com.