Chicago Reviews

There is serious import in RedTape’s lively and enjoyable “We Are Pussy Riot”

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Austin Oie.

In 2012, an anonymous Russian activist/punk rock group that called itself Pussy Riot made headlines around the world by performing a 48-second “punk prayer” called “Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Away!” in the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Though they were chased out of the church quickly by security, three of the group’s members were arrested in the ensuing days by Russian authorities, and two of them eventually received two-year prison sentences for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The high-profile case, along with the heavy-handed tactics used at the trial, seemed to confirm one of the group’s central reasons for its protest: the too-close bond between the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin.

Pussy Riot members have stated that it is a concept and not a group and that “Anybody can be Pussy Riot; you just need to put on a mask and stage an active protest of something in your particular country, wherever that may be, that you consider unjust.” Well, there are a lot of people in masks at The Ready these days, but it isn’t a protest: rather, it is Red Tape Theatre’s production of Barbara Hammond’s We Are Pussy Riot, or Everything Is P.R., a play about the band and the trial and the the worldwide phenomenon that Pussy Riot became. Combining trial transcripts, letters, interviews, media coverage, and statements from celebrities and public officials, Hammond frames the story of Pussy Riot as it would be told by a troupe of Yurodivy, ”Holy Fools,” who, in the Russian Orthodox tradition, strive with “imaginary insanity to reveal the insanity of the world.”

This lively production begins in the lobby before the show, as Pussy Riot suddenly appears to perform its guerilla rock as it did in the church. Once we are inside the theatre, things take off from from the arrests of the three band members, whose complex Russian names are often shortened to Katya, Masha, and Nadya (played by Stephanie Shum, Jalyn Greene, and Emily Nichelson). A parallel plot concerns a former history professor named Sergei (William Rose II), who is imprisoned at the same time as the Pussy Riot women and protests the lack of movement toward a trial with a hunger strike while the doctor assigned to him (Zoë DePreta) does everything she can to keep him alive. We also watch as Putin (Casey Chapman) pulls the strings of the church Patriarch (Joseph Ramski) and the trial’s judge (Emilie Modaff), while the defense attorney (Dionne Addai) is continually frustrated at this kangaroo court; there is no doubt in this play that the original protest was well-founded. Also appearing are Ann Sonneville in several significant roles including a devout woman who feels that the protest was sacrilegious, Alec Phan as a sympathetic guard, and Nora King as a reporter and Madonna, among others.

Yes, Madonna. Marilyn Monroe also makes an appearance. This play has everything but the kitchen sink (and it does have a toilet brush and several other household tools). The play is a bit schizophrenic in its structure: at times a very serious portrayal of government overreach and the appalling lack of freedom and due process in Putin’s Russia, at other times bordering on absurdism; I mean it features a toilet brush. But everything is kept rolling smoothly by the solid direction of Kate Hendrickson, who certainly had a lot to keep track of in this one in addition to guiding her actors to some fine performances. Anyway, its sillier moments are in service of the “imaginary insanity” of the Yurodivy, and the focus is squarely on the four prisoners at all times, while the idea that we are all Pussy Riot shines through when all of the ensemble members don balaclavas and join the protest.

If this were 2015, when this play was first performed, it might have been interesting as a reminder of the freedoms that we as Americans take for granted. But this is a different era, and the political winds that have been blowing in the US are frightening enough to make this play into a warning of what can happen in a dictatorship. The more Donald Trump praises Putin and other strongmen who rule their nations with iron fists, the more he “jokes” about extending his term or how much easier it would be to be president for life, the more that his judges and his cronies and his directives chip away at our rights and our freedoms, the closer we are to slipping over the edge. Once this play might have had an “it can’t happen here” feeling; that is no longer so. Now it is a reminder that protest is an obligation of the people when their leaders are out of control. Now it is a reminder that if we are not all Pussy Riot, we ought to be.


We Are Pussy Riot or Everything is P.R. is now playing at Red Tape Theatre’s The Ready, 4536 N Western, Chicago through June 29. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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