In these free, privileged United States, the phrase "Sex in the City" conjures up a premium-cable experience of hot nights, cool fashion, heavy appetizers and relationship angst so light it might fly away on the West Village breeze. But whither real sex in the city of Minsk in the totalitarian state of Belarus, an ignominious anachronism of Europe just north of Ukraine and southeast of Lithuania? If a brutal dictator controls the narrative, can a city and its feared citizens still be sexual, if to be sexual means, at its core, to be free?
In Minsk, we're told, people get nervous if you hold their gaze for more than three seconds. To do so is to invite trouble. How can one love in that arena?
"Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker," the latest production from the remarkable, exiled artists known as the Belarus Free Theatre, spends 90 minutes, a 90 minutes at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater one won't soon forget, trying to answer such very complicated questions about survival in a harsh land. On the one hand, the answer seems to be very much in the negative. "To be sexy in Minsk," observes one of the company's actors, who all hail from Belarus, a land to which they cannot presently return, "does not mean that you want sex."
That might sound paradoxical, but the point being made is that, in a totalitarian nation, the sexualized individual, and we are all sexualized individuals to some extent, inevitably comes to see sexual expression as a solo act, an expression of power, a means of getting ahead. People become, this piece notes, "sadomasochistic sophisticates" who brutalize themselves by night and in secret. As bizarre as some of his theories may have been, Wilhelm Reich understood this well: To control another human you must control their sexual expression or send it so far underground, it can never see the light of day. The denial of human dignity results in sexlessness. Dictators have known this as long as there have been dictators.
There is, as this show reveals in one astonishingly visceral vignette after another, a very short line from the John in the erotic bar to the secret police. History teaches us that interrogators love nothing so much as to revel in their sexual power.
Remarkably, "Minsk, 2011" (conceived and directed by Vladimir Shcherban and on a U.S. tour including New York, Los Angles and Chicago) actually is also a love letter to the city of Minsk. As brutal as this intensely personal piece can be, it also celebrates the human capacity for finding sensual and collective expression in the cold, flat and the prosaic. If you have only fallen in love once, in only one city, does that not inherently make that a sexy city? Sure it does. "I've got nothing in Minsk," one of the performers says at one point, "but I can't imagine my life anywhere else."
Listen to that line, and listen to it you should, on a cold January night in Chicago, a city many of us love with a strange passion we don't even understand, and you can't help but think of Nelson Algren and his famous line about how "once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another" and how you may find "lovelier lovelies but never a lovely so real."
That is the way, I think, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre feel about their poor, sleeping, atrophied Minsk, with its population of close to 2 million souls, as they Skype home from their quarters in London. Perhaps it helps explain why our city has so embraced this theater company, which performed its astounding "Being Harold Pinter" here in 2011, after Chicago artists and institutions stepped up to help them get here. Artistic people, and their financial and moral supporters, were out in force Wednesday night on Navy Pier.
Really, one can almost cry for Minsk. One section deals with the city's relatively new subway — initially a place of pride, affection, community and, yes, lovers' assignations on the bridge that connects the two lines. Then there is an explosion and dead bodies and, well, that's one more sensual escape denied the local citizenry. A city's artery is ripped away, even after it has been repaired.
The crucially harsh themes notwithstanding, it is the beautiful, hopeful sections of this show that lodge themselves most determinedly in one's head. At one point in the piece — written and performed by Pavel Radak-Haradnitski, Dzianis Tarasenka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Yana Rusakevich, Maryna Yurevich, Viktoryia Biran, Aleh Sidorchyk, Yuliya Shauchuk and Kiryl Kanstantsinau — the flunkies of President Alexander Lukashenko, the nemesis of the Belarus Free Theatre, force the city's oppressed streetwalkers to come out in the day and clear a snowstorm.
It is intended as an indignity for the sexually deviant, but it ends up being a sensual, cleansing experience, as a clean sheet of white, in which one can twirl one's body, covers up so much of the gray.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye