Arlekin Players Theater’s ‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ Turns Virtual Theatre on Its Head in a Groundbreaking Production

 

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Darya Denisova as Natasha in ‘State vs. Natasha Banina.’

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

If there are silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic (and I firmly believe there are many), the robust and varied ways in which live theatre has adapted itself to the digital Zoom era ranks at the top of the list. Some have opted to create a virtual replica of the silent, passive invisible spectator model, maintaining a masked cyber wall between actor and audience, with mixed and inconsistent success.

 

Not so Arlekin Players Theater’s production of ‘State vs. Natasha Banina.’ Under Igor Golyak’s ground-breaking direction, his “live theater and experiment” audience is far from detached and anonymous. Digging deep into his interactive theatrical bag of tricks, Golyak uses graphics, animation and live viewer participation to erase the glass barrier between observed and observer and create a unique film/theater hybrid. The result is one thrilling corona coaster ride.

 

The 55-minute live production centers on the fate of Natasha Banina (brilliantly played by the 2020 Elliot Norton Award-winner for Outstanding Actress, Darya Denisova), a Russian 16-year-old incarcerated as she awaits trial for manslaughter in a crime of passion. During pre-show remarks, a masked Golyak addresses the spectators with the words, “Welcome to our virtual courtroom.”

 

The audience/participants (which last Sunday numbered close to 100) are members of the Zoom jury, Golyak says. We are encouraged to introduce ourselves in a pre-show chat room and take an interactive on-line poll to determine our eligibility to serve. The camera remains 2-way throughout the performance, with Natasha periodically addressing the “jurors” by name. The effect is electrifying.

 

We then enter Natasha’s cell, where we remain with her for the rest of the piece as she takes the virtual stand and testifies on her own behalf. She slowly unfolds her story, peeling back the layers of an onion that brings predictable tears to the eye. Raised in a small-town orphanage by abusive and hard-hearted “caregivers”, she describes a childhood laced with pain, populated by girls who bully each other and a mother who refers to her as “my abortion.” Unflappable, Natasha nonetheless remains optimistic. She has hope for a different future. She has faith in an imaginary pipedream. “Natasha, what is your dream?” she repeatedly asks herself, with increasing desperation and animalistic passion.

 

Her life went bad, she confides, when a journalist came to the orphanage and, in the course of his research, took a personal interest in her inhumane conditions. He asked her a question no one had ever asked: “What’s your dream, Natasha?”

 

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Natasha misinterprets this single moment of kindness (“It is the first time someone has been horrified for my life,” she says with puppy dog exuberance). She overreacts, and in her delusional and desperate infatuation, imagines him as her knight in shining armor who will marry her and lead her into a fairytale land of forever after. (Under animator Anton Iakhontov’s inspired genius, the knight is replaced by an astronaut who literally leads Natasha to another world amid cartoon hearts and clouds).

 

As the lines between inside and outside the stark white cell become blurred for the audience, so does Natasha’s grip on reality as she tells us what came next. She paces around the confined space, grinning all the time with a Cheshire cat grin that alternates among bestial, alluring, menacing and achingly vulnerable. Running black eye makeup and a half- blackened tooth amplify the effect.

 

Trapped by her fantasies, Natasha continues her self-defense. When she spies her imaginary lover with another woman, she becomes unhinged, encouraging her posse to savagely beat her as revenge. The woman remains hospitalized in a coma and for that act, Natasha faces trial.

 

And we, the Zoom jury, are to decide her fate.

 

Natasha takes it to an even more personal level as she addresses audience members by name and pleads with them to see her side of the story. “It’s just a dream I had,” she confesses. And with that, an interactive poll appears on the screen and we are asked to vote: guilty or not guilty?

 

Within seconds, the verdict appears. Last Sunday, Natasha was found guilty. Other nights, she has had more luck.

 

Denisova’s performance cannot be praised enough. Although she is alone throughout the entire performance, the audience is left wanting more, no small or standard feat. Her physicality is riveting: she prowls, growls, purrs and eventually claws her way into our hearts. Her jagged smile and trapped, beseeching eyes make us want to hug her and tame her, not necessarily in that order.

 

As engaging as the play was, the almost as long Emerson-facilitated talk-back was equally absorbing, as Golyak and Denisova fielded questions and took us on a tour of the apartment where the performance was filmed. The audience/jury participation in the live chat was rich with insight and nuance as the discussion veered to questions of morality, insanity defense, human pain and suffering, and judgment.

 

“The virtual medium is just another space where theater takes place and where audiences can share experiences,” Golyak explained. “Theater is one of those art forms that can be represented in many different environments.”

 

‘State vs Natasha’ has just started its global virtual tour. For more information, go to www.arlekinplayers.com.

‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ Directed by Igor Golyak, based on Yaroslava Pulinovich’s ‘Natasha’s Dream;’ Performed by Darya Denisova; Translated by John Freedman; Animation by Anton Iakhontov; Video by Igor Golyak; Music composed by Vadim Khrapatchev. Produced by Arlekin Players Theater in partnership with ArtsEmerson and the Cherry Orchard Festival. For upcoming performances, visit arlekinplayers.com/state-vs-natasha-banina-online-interactive-live-performance-2/

 

 

 

Living Out Loud: Gloucester Stage Unmasks Isabella Stewart Gardner in a Tour-de-Force Production

Isabella

by Shelley A. Sackett

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s legacy is synonymous with that of her namesake museum, Fenway Court. Part arboretum, part concert hall, and part cultural repository, the building houses the eccentric millionaires’ collection of art, sculpture, tapestries and more in a gilded Italian confection that reflects its creator’s love affair with the Italian Renaissance.

 

Just as a visit to the museum titillates and seduces the visitor with romantic corridors and hidden treasures, so does Leigh Strimbeck’s spectacular performance as the spirited and indomitable Mrs. Gardner lead us down a magical path that unveils this complex firecracker of a Bostonian Brahmin’s wife. For just under an hour, Strimbeck (who wrote the one-woman script) is Isabella Stewart Gardner and we are her confidantes as she tells the story of her life from a 20-year-old newlywed in 1860’s Boston to the widowed hostess at the opening of her beloved museum in 1903.

 

What a story it is and was a terrific storyteller to boot!

 

Strimbeck is on camera in this “Theatre on Film” production during the entire 56 minutes, and  neither the camera nor the audience can get enough of her. By the end of the monologue, we feel like we’ve barely scratched beneath the surface of this enigmatic powerhouse.

 

As instructive as it is entertaining, ‘‘The Queen of Fenway Court: Isabella Stewart Gardner’’ introduces Isabella as she struggles with her life as an ebullient, headstrong and feisty young wife stuck in uptight, staid class-obsessed Boston. She quickly abandons any thought of reining in her temperament to “blend in,” and soon she is the belle of the ball and talk of the town- not all of it flattering.

 

To the woman bragging about her ancestors being among the first to arrive in Boston, Isabella cracks, “Yes. They were much less careful about immigration in those days.” She takes a lion on a walk on a dare and attends dances alone while her equally independent and modern husband Jack (a monied Peabody by birth, a banker by trade) takes refuge in his club. “I obey the rules when they suit me,” she dead pans, her playful eyes dancing roguishly.

 

Her life takes a U-turn with the birth and death at age 2 of her only child, a son. “My heart sweated,” she says. “Where is God in all of this?” When she suffers a miscarriage and subsequent hysterectomy, her husband whisks her off to Europe and Egypt to recover, planting the seed of the second great romance that will dominate her life: a love for travel. “Travel is the way out and the way back,” she says.

 

She returns to Italy with a companion (she has many, mostly male and all allegedly platonic) and finds both her true passion and her voice in sensational Venice, the antidote to functional and stoic Boston with its 50 gloomy shades of wintry gray. When she answers the “call to the hunt” and purchases her first painting, Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” (which she hopes is “enough to turn any Puritan to a Bacchante”), she discovers her true calling: to collect art for art’s sake. Eyes ablaze, she triumphantly crows after bagging the prized Titian at her first auction, “I vow to live out loud.”

 

When she returns to Boston, her goals are straightforward: to bring the visual feast of Italy to Boston while, whenever possible, scandalizing its uptight Victorian inhabitants. She and her beloved Jack will build a palazzo to house her carefully curated collection. When he dies midway through the project, however, she decides to live there alone and  builds her cozy fourth-floor apartment.

 

Full-bodied and clad in the black velvet dress and ruby necklace made famous in John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Strimbeck channels Isabella and all her inconsistencies, quirkiness and charm. She wears both halo and crown and, in the blink of an eye, shifts from steely and unwavering to coquettish and fun-loving and back again to shrewd and fearless. Her voice is nuanced, the pacing interesting and intimate. All this makes for great storytelling and enchanting theater.

 

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s art and her museum are her last dance and her last love. Above the entrance is the motto, “C’est mon Plaisir.” (this is my delight). After spending an hour getting to know and understand Isabella/Strimbeck, revisiting this literal palace in the hopefully not too distant future will also be nos plaisirs. Merci, Isabella.

 

‘The Queen of Fenway Court: Isabella Stewart Gardner’ – Written and Performed by Leigh Strimbeck; Directed by Joshua Briggs; Original Music by Jan Jurchak. Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online August 6-9.For tickets and information, go to: gloucesterstage.com.