Review | “We Are Pussy Riot” at Red Tape Theatre

Review | “We Are Pussy Riot” at Red Tape Theatre

Pictured (from left): Jalyn Greene, Stephanie Shum, Emily Nichelson. Photo by Austin Oie.

By Sheri Flanders

Scrappy and audacious Red Tape Theatre is the kind of ambitious company that sometimes bites off a mouthful more than they can chew. That’s the case with their latest performance of “We Are Pussy Riot (or) Everything is P.R.” Written by Barbara Hammond, this absurdist play delves into the trial of the Russian activist group, Pussy Riot, and the subsequent imprisonment of two members.

Largely misunderstood by the media as a legitimate punk band, rather than performance artists with a desire to draw attention to the illegal 2012 elections and the abuses of the Putin administration, this play painfully illustrates how media ignorance, sexism, and ageism failed these brave young women. Drawing on excerpts of trial transcripts, the story is told by a troupe of “Yurodivy” which means “Holy Fools” or martyrs who give up all of their worldly possessions for religion.

Before the production begins, faux security and autocratic instructions on a computer screen set a militaristic vibe; a faux protest breaks out, and the “security” swoops in to tamp down the ruckus. While a cute device, this moment doesn’t shock as much as it might have intended to—accidentally revealing how much of a police state we have already become comfortable with.

The play pages in and out of an artistic interpretation of the trial of Pussy Riot, and narration provided by Sergei, another political prisoner. Played wonderfully by William Rose II, the quiet narrative for the forgotten, imprisoned man strikes an effective and sobering contrast between his plight and that of the international media circus. Without sideshow, spectacle, and international advocacy, what hope does the average person have for survival in the face of gross injustice?

The choice of this play, which delves into the recent history of a country other than our own (yet terrifyingly still related through our recent political shenanigans) is a refreshing oasis of subject matter. However, the construction of this play makes it extremely difficult to stage effectively. Long swaths of planned cacophony require a very particular kind of handling to render successful. Though director Kate Hendrickson does successfully hit some of the absurdist notes, she, unfortunately, misses opportunities to find beats and subtleties within the stretches of bedlam that might have provided more emotional levels and nuance and allowed the quieter moments to land with more impact.

Additionally, though the play trafficks in themes of authoritarian violence, fear, power, and defiance – and police sirens, gunshots, gavels, and guitars punctuate the air frequently – there isn’t a single moment in the play where one feels dread, or rage emanating from the stage. There is no edge or feeling of danger. This is a very, very…. nice and jolly rebellion. While the rebellious nature of joy is a cornerstone of Pussy Riot’s message, it is rebellious precisely because it flies in the face of possible death, and exists on borrowed time.

But perhaps this sense of happiness is a testament to the infinitely watchable cast who very obviously enjoy playing together; jumping around the stage, rocking out, and being very, very, silly. The Pussy Riot ensemble of Jalyn Greene (Masha) Emily Nichelson (Nadya) and Stephanie Shum (Katya) give their all to the roles, as does the entire cast. Their energy is infectious, and there is never a dull moment for the entire 90 minutes which goes by rapidly.

Overall, this show is enlighting and recommended viewing for anyone who has an interest in Pussy Riot and the state of Russia. A particularly interesting gem delves into the fact that the American media latched onto our puritanical taboo of the word “pussy” when in fact “riot” is the inflammatory part in Russia. Ultimately robust in content, yet flawed in execution, this production of “We are Pussy Riot (or) Everything is P.R.” is mostly a pussycat without claws.

About author

Sheri Flanders

Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.

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