Performance Space New York
122CC Second Floor Theater
150 First Ave. at East Ninth St.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 14, $35-$45
Heroic Russian journalist and activist Anna Politkovskaya dedicated her life to reporting the truth about what was going on in Russia and in particular Chechnya. In writing Intractable Woman: A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya, Italian playwright Stefano Massini explains, “I wrote this text to go against the plan of those that decided to silence and muffle her voice.” Translated into English by Paula Wing, the 2008 play is now being given its US premiere by PlayCo, opening tonight at the 122CC Second Floor Theater at Performance Space New York in the East Village. The eighty-minute work features a cast of three women, Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub, and Stacey Yen, dressed in the same black pants, white collared shirt, and black jacket as if they are state officials or investigators (the costume designer is Junghyun Georgia Lee), portraying multiple characters, including Politkovskaya and various subjects she interviewed. In the prologue, the three women directly address the audience, interchanging lines as they share something that senior Kremlin official Vladimir Surkov wrote in an internal memo. “Enemies of the state are divided into two categories: the kind you can reeducate and the intractables. Discussion is not possible with the second kind and this makes reeducation impossible. The State requires us to clear our territory of these intractables.” Politkovskaya was considered an intractable.
The show consists of nineteen episodes of Politkovskaya’s reporting, involving a decapitated head put on public display; a nineteen-year-old soldier suffering from hunger who enlisted in the military, where he kills Chechens in “human bundles”; the Beslan massacre; a typical journalist’s day in Grozny, where citizens “get used to the idea of death”; and Ramzan Kadyrov, the corrupt thirty-year-old prime minister of Chechnya, installed by his father. “I find the behavior of this journalist unacceptable,” he says a day after the interview is published. “Doesn’t she know it’s the interviewer’s job to make the interviewee look good? What right did she have to publish my responses exactly as I gave them? Clearly this woman doesn’t want to be one of us.”
Indeed, Politkovskaya never wanted to be one of “them.” Instead, she fearlessly wrote about hate crimes, imprisonment and torture, widespread rape, mass graves, and other degradations of humanity, risking her job and her life with her husband and two children. Marsha Ginsberg’s pristine press-room set contains carefully arranged rows of red chairs facing a table with microphones. A portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs on a wall. One of the most frightening aspects of Intractable Woman — which marks Massini’s US debut, to be followed in March with The Lehman Trilogy at the Park Avenue Armory — is how Politkovskaya and other reporters are considered propagandists and enemies of the state, echoing President Trump’s views of the free press. “Journalists like you write lies,” a colonel in command of an airborne unit tells Politkovskaya. “What should I write?” she asks him. He replies, “That we’re fighting for the motherland. Against enemies of the people and traitors.”
Director Lee Sunday Evans (Dance Nation, HOME) does a superb job preventing the play from becoming didactic, pedantic, or just plain boring; the dialogue interplay among the three equally excellent actresses, who move chairs around in various scenes, keeps things proceeding at a fluid pace. The text does not necessarily quote Politkovskaya exactly; Massini, a novelist and the artistic director of the Piccolo Teatro of Milano, rewrote her words for dramatic impact, although the facts themselves are true. After the show is over, a curtain is opened at the back of the stage and the audience is invited to look inside, at a shelf of such items as Politkovskaya’s books, family photographs, and, most tellingly, a picture of a room of the same red chairs used in the production, on each one a photo of a murdered Russian journalist. The lobby is filled with posters of quotes from Politkovskaya, along with photographs. “I never write commentary, or speculation, or opinions. I have always believed – and I continue to believe – that it is not up to us to make judgements,” she wrote. “I am a journalist, not a court of law or a magistrate. I limit myself to reporting the facts. The facts: As they stand, as they are. It seems like the easiest thing, but here it’s the most difficult. And it exacts the highest price.”