Chicago Theater Review: MINSK, 2011: A REPLY TO KATHY ACKER (Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 31, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


The 85-minutes of this electrifying protest play begin with a lone microphone suddenly erupting in an ear-splitting feedback. The noise is intolerable, no less than what it ushers in. After this blast from the other side of the world, individual performer/protesters approach that mike, start to speak, back up and unfurl a flag or item of protest, only to be snatched away by government thugs, their fate deliberately unknown.

It’s a sample of the ferocious fare, performed at great risk at home and with great reward abroad, of a company whose whole is much greater than their parts. In Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, their final American appearance, the nine intrepid actor-activists of the banned Belarus Free Theatre offer a left-handed “shout out” to their home and capital and to Acker, the late American radical writer who inspires them.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of Belarus Free Theatre’s "Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker"

They know the price they pay for the agit-prop they unleash. This underground troupe perform hit-and-run performances in apartments and other supposedly safe spaces, despite police intimidation (as recently as last month), imprisonment, homelessness, blackmail and the loss of work. They have easily and repeatedly earned the enmity of Belarus’ brutal tyrant, President Lukashenko, a brute who’s made Belarus a throwback to the worst European tyrannies. Happily, these brave thespians, who won an Obie Award last year for their production of Being Harold Pinter at the Public Theatre, have received international assistance and a growing following. In this soon-to-end American tour (which closes Feb. 3), these dreamers of democracy have taken their contagious rage to N.Y.C., California and now Chicago.

As the title suggests, this experimental work is nothing if not raw and recent. Simple because it must be portable (but sometimes too specific to strike anywhere but home), Minsk 2011 combines strident political outbursts with personal confessions and Rabelaisian satire. Unfurling a red rug that becomes many things, the actors present Minsk as a cold totalitarian dump of impersonal concrete edifices. It’s an authoritarian fortress that snow can only improve (a lovely effect), where 15 people recently died in a terrorist attack on the city’s new subway (the dead symbolized by scattering the sugar of the groceries they never brought home), where the police disguise paddy wagons as ambulances to make it easier to sweep up suspects, and where an underground river occasionally collapses the streets above as if finally getting its revenge.

Oppressing a flat land with no ocean or mountains and few natural resources, Minsk is a “black hole” that sucks the life of its inhabitants, where gatherings greater than 3 souls are considered threats to the state, where graffiti as inoffensive as “SNOW” is painted over in beige so that entire walls are boring cover-ups, and where you can get arrested for just looking at someone too long or for clapping in public or looking at a watch or standing near someone who does.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of Belarus Free Theatre’s "Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker"

Thin and ardent, these young artists, directed by adaptor Vladimir Shcherban, deliver protean performances where, among other transformations, they morph the stage into a working man’s pub that becomes, perilously, a gay bar at night. One man displays the scars he’s received from accidents and goons, his claim to erotic status in a city so scarred it must be “the sexiest city in the world.” A whip becomes one man’s reckless attempt to strike back. The stage pictures they create (a woman is painted black and entirely wrapped in paper as she describes her rage against rape) burn into you like a breaking story you just saw in person.

Equally a wake-up call against our own complacency over freedoms that are far from non-negotiable, Minsk 2011 is not just a colorful import from a dangerous realm. It indicts far more creatures than Lukashenko. At play’s end each actor, stand-ins for so many silenced Belarusians, delivers a heartbreaking personal message about their immediate past and future. Mission accomplished.

To encourage dialogue and participation, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, courageous in its own right, has made all tickets available for $20.

photos by Nikolai Khalezin

Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker
Belarus Free Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
scheduled to end on Feb. 3, 2013
for tickets call 312-595-5600 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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