(l to r) from left) Alec Phan, Jalyn Greene, Casey Chapman, Stephanie Shum, Emily Nichelson in ‘We Are Pussy Riot (or) Everything is P.R.’ (Photo: Austin Oie)
By Becky Sarwate
Creating art informed by a dedication to benevolent anarchy, Red Tape Theatre’s choice of material to close out its season is fitting. Playwright Barbara Hammond’s We Are Pussy Riot (or) Everything is P.R. documents how a small act of revolution in 2012 became at various turns, an international cause celebre, a farcical human rights flashpoint and an expression of a resurgent, transformed pock rock aesthetic. The kids of Pussy Riot aren’t interested in breaking things for their own sake. Many of them are parents themselves. Instead, their movement strives with “imaginary insanity to reveal the insanity of the world” in order to communally improve it.
After a brief historical rundown of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s cynical re-embrace of the Orthodox Church after decades of spiritual and secular antagonism in the Soviet era, the basic timeline of events that form the work’s plot are as follows: in February 2012, five young women walked into the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow and engaged in an unknowingly potent act of civil disobedience. Shredding a guitar and shouting “Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Away!” for exactly 48 seconds before being booted from the church, it was the women’s YouTube performance upload that ultimately resulted in their arrest and pop cultural martyrdom.
By 2012, an intuitionally empowered Putin (played here by Red Tape’s Marketing Director, Casey Chapman) was no stranger to taking political prisoners. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent commission of the U.S. Federal Government, publishes a short list of people believed to be jailed for political reasons in Russia today. However, most of these incidents failed to garner the international attention that Pussy Riot captured, turning the “band” into a political lightning rod as well as a mass-consumed piece of performance art.
Why, exactly? The play offers a few surface hypotheses (the camera-ready nature of Pussy Riot’s female rebels, renewed distrust between East and West), but isn’t here to soberly judge history. Its mission is to loudly capture the unifying, energizing spirit of mutiny.
We Are Pussy Riot (or) Everything is P.R. does a commendable job of evoking and corralling the chaos. Director Kate Hendrickson untethers her skilled, diverse cast to utilize every inch of space, as well as every body movement and vocal sound to tell a universal story of civilian pushback against Putin’s bizarre interpretation of the nanny/police state. The work offers high-decibel music, mass digital and traditional media, sketch comedy and more than anything, a love letter to the power of the proletariat.
A disciplined troupe delivers this message, along with a few standout performances. The aforementioned Mr. Chapman shines as an egomaniacal, yet somehow soft and romantic Putin, serenading the audience with a too-weird-to-be-fictional rendition of “Blueberry Hill.” William Rose brings gravitas and commitment to his role as Sergei, an imprisoned, hunger striking post-Soviet Everyman. And Nora King is a chameleonic revelation, inhabiting an array of voices and body languages to create an incongruous cast of characters ranging from Madonna and Marilyn Monroe to a global roster of journalistic stereotypes. This lady is ready to be famous.
We Are Pussy Riot (or) Everything is P.R.’s 90 minutes demand full attention. Performers literally get in audiences members’ faces. Percussion comes from anywhere and everywhere without warning. Song and dance erupt. The work is a satisfying exhibition of harmonious lawlessness from Red Tape Theatre. The production is free of charge as part of the company’s effort to “remove the barriers that exist between our community and an increasingly commodified culture” — a democratic and welcoming mission for Chicago theatergoers in spite of its aesthetically disruptive subject matter.
We Are Pussy Riot (or) Everything is P.R.
4546 N Western Ave, Chicago
Through July 6
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.