CATF’s ‘We Are Pussy Riot’: Politics, prose and chaos

New, hyperkinetic Barbara Hammond play, based on political stunt staged in cathedral by Russian feminist punk rockers, gets lost in the funhouse after its phenomenal opening scene.

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Pussy Riot in action at the Marinoff Theater.
Pussy Riot in action at the Marinoff Theater. (Photo credit: Seth Freeman)

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2015 – Somewhat like CATF’s controversial 2007 production of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” the 2015 world premiere production of Barbara Hammond’s “We Are Pussy Riot” may unintentionally raise a barrier for those members of the audience not on top of the latest international pop entertainment happenings or recent international political scandals.

Who is Pussy Riot?

While the title of this play might seem deliberately designed to shock, that’s not necessarily the point. “Pussy Riot” refers to and is actually about—more or less—the antics of a Russian feminist-anarchist, anti-capitalist 20-something punk rock band-collective that perform(s) under that name.

Pussy Riot stunt in Russia.
The real Pussy Riot in official riot gear somewhere in Russia. (Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikipedia)

Intriguingly, band members chose from the beginning to spell out their moniker not in Cyrillic but in the Western (Latin) alphabet as either a provocatively pro-Western gesture deliberately meant to antagonize the current Russian oligarchy, attract the attention of Western rockers, entertainers and media, or perhaps both.


Though this somewhat fugitive, sometime band has its musical supporters, a great many critics both in Russia and abroad regard them as pretty lousy musicians. This hasn’t much bothered them, however, for, it seems, their primary mission is protest politics. They strive to stage—without authorization or permission—brief, attention-grabbing “guerilla performances” of musical street theater when and where individuals and the Russian authorities would least expect them.

At various times, members of the group have expressed support for feminism, anarchism and LGBT rights, while at the same time shouting their opposition to Russia’s current President-for-Life, Vladimir Putin, his current, KGB-inspired Russian thugocracy, the currently government co-opted Russian Orthodox Church and, of course, rapacious Western capitalism.

Like Marlon Brando’s motorcycle gang leader in the 1953 film classic, “The Wild Ones,” if you chanced to ask Pussy Riot what, exactly, they are rebelling against, Pussy Riot might fire back, “What’ve you got?”

Pussy Riot in Red Square.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The real Pussy Riot in action at Red Square, 2012. (Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, via Wikipedia)

Pussy Riot’s antics put them under the watchful eye of Putin’s authorities. But when things really got interesting was in February of 2012 when five members of the band dashed into Moscow’s then mostly-empty Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior, donned their trademark, multi-colored balaclavas, mounted the steps before the altar and began jumping and fist-pumping, singing and shouting obscenities as they delivered their latest pot-stirring anthem, “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away!”

Reportedly, they were thrown out of the cathedral by authorities within less than a minute of launching their stunt. But a clip taken from that performance was quickly edited into a video for the song that almost instantly went viral around the world.

Pussy Riot on trial.
Back in Shepherdstown, three members of Pussy Riot (Libby Matthews, Katya Stepanov, Liba Vaynberg) are on show trial. (Credit: Seth Freeman)

Predictably, Putin’s authorities arrested three members of the band in March, 2012, charging them with that Soviet-era show-trial favorite—“hooliganism”—jailing all three and denying them bail.

Two band members were ultimately sentenced to two years in prison and promptly shipped off in October to one of the old Soviet Era’s gulag-prisons. Under mounting international political pressure, often spearheaded by pop music idols, these two women were given early release in 2013, though they defiantly continued to raise an occasional ruckus, most notably by attempting to disrupt ceremonies at the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi.

Are We Pussy Riot?

Given the title of Hammond’s play, that’s evidently the question the audience is supposed to ask itself.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow.
Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where the action suddenly begins. (Interior photo of the actual cathedral via Wikipedia)

The play actually begins when you least expect it, replicating in a clever way the shock those few Russian churchgoers must have experienced when members of Pussy Riot invaded the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to deliver their own deliberately blasphemous hymn of dispraise.

We won’t tell you exactly how this happens. But for better or for worse, this unusual dramatic prelude may actually be the high point of a drama that quickly seems to lose its focus.

Before we are even introduced to those Russian mistresses of mayhem, we actually spend a considerable amount of time and background with a hunger-striking Russian prisoner who was arrested when he tried to prevent Russian authorities from brutally beating a group of young protesters.

Sergey and Anna.
Sergey (T. Ryder Smith, back to camera) is checked out by Anna (Sarah Nepalis), the prison physician. (Credit: Seth Freeman)

Hammond’s “Sergey”—whose name has been changed in the play to conceal the name of this real-life character—is a scholar, historian and philosopher who, consistent with his studies, retains an almost encyclopedic memory that consolidates and contextualizes all of Russian history, from ancient to contemporary.

The character of Sergey (T. Ryder Smith) seems intended by the playwright to function as a chorus of sorts, representing the long-suffering, long-enduring Russian people, similar in a way to the manner in which Mussorgsky employs a chorus of peasants in his operatic masterpiece, “Boris Godunov.”

Whether unfortunately or intentionally, however, Sergey ends up occupying far too much time, space and dialogue in this play to the point where we begin to wonder whether this story is really about Sergey, Pussy Riot, or the endless suffering of all who inhabit Mother Russia.

Further awkwardness is introduced when Sergey’s increasingly sympathetic prison doctor (Sarah Nealis) morphs into the ghost of Russian Poet Anna Akhmatova—a transformation that occurs after Nealis swaps her white lab coat for a black robe to become the presiding judge at the Pussy Riot trial, all of which causes us to lose focus on who, exactly, these characters really are.

Even more problematic is the fact that the introduction of the Akhmatova character seems to have been contrived solely to introduce a few salient quotes from the poet. It’s all part of the distraction that begins when Sergey and his meditations on history seem to be taking over from what we thought was the central premise of the play.

Sergey’s character is, in fact, far more carefully developed than the characters of Hammond’s trio of Pussy Rioters, Nadya (Libby Matthews), Masha (Liba Vaynberg), and Katya (Katya Stepanov). The three young women appear furtively and episodically throughout the play, but only long enough to deliver short yet articulate protests to the judge and the prosecutor (portrayed with a brief costume change by T. Ryder Smith) and their goofball defense attorney (Adam H. Phillips).

On a few other occasions, Nadya, Mash and Katya don their signature, brightly-colored balaclavas and invade the audience shouting slogans and firing off provocative questions, amidst noise and flashing lights.

But in the end, we never really get to learn who these angry young women actually are or what they really stand for. Instead, we mostly get the pronouncements and slogans the trio rolls out with as much ease as Boomer new left protesters fired off anti-war slogans here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Playwright Barbara Hammond.
Playwright Barbara Hammond. (Courtesy CATF)

We instinctively want to be sympathetic to the young women’s cause, but we’re given precious little in this play that would cause us to readily identify with them. If, as this play’s title would seem to imply, we are supposed to be one and the same in mind and spirit with Pussy Riot, we don’t actually get much to identify with.

Leading things further astray, the play’s time-jumping, stream-of-consciousness narrative trajectory is further confused by periodic song-and-dance and dramatic scenes that attempt to give us a sense of the international support accorded Pussy Riot by prominent members of the pop music establishment.

These bits include a simulated cameo appearance by “Madonna,” who materializes on a catwalk high above the audience to denounce the establishment, support Pussy Riot, but ultimately, it seems, to boost her own increasingly tired and tedious career by creating the appearance of virtue.

If our review at this point appears to be going far afield, perhaps it is. But that’s because we’re trying to re-create the grab-bag sense of confusion that dominates the muddled narrative of this play, leaving us wondering, in the end, what it was all about and why we should even care about a trio of provocateurs whose final philosophical position seems to center on a hatred or dislike not just of Putin but of everything else. “What’ve you got?”

Ironically, aside from that stunner of an opening scene, the one other thing “We Are Pussy Riot” has going for it is an unusual segment that takes place once the trial scene gets underway. As it is several times during the production, the theater’s “fourth wall” is broken down again, but in a novel way, when the prosecutor grabs a couple of apparently random audience members and plunks them down on the witness chair to serve as witnesses for the prosecution and against the young women.

This is obviously going to be a random happening at each performance. But when we attended the play, the chosen audience “witnesses” politely but efficiently evaded the prosecutor’s attempt to lead them. Perhaps in real life, they are Federal employees or contractors well familiar with the evasive nature of Washingtonspeak. But in any case, the exchanges were hilarious as the cast members stoutly tried to keep their prosecutorial railroading on track.

“We Are Pussy Riot” is an interesting, provocative and timely concept that for once spends its time attacking Russia’s post-Soviet, anti-artistic freedom oligarchy instead of blasting our own much freer society. But Hammond’s play loses its narrative track early and often and may not be able to proceed much further without a serious reconceptualization and focus on character.

It’s entirely possible this play’s confusing forward motion is in and of itself an attempt to convey the sheer anarchy that drives so much of what is called performance art today. But even if this is the case, many audience members are still likely to end up leaving the theater more than a bit bewildered and with as little comprehension of Pussy Riot and contemporary Russia as they had when they filed in.

Rating: * (One out of four stars)

“We Are Pussy Riot” by Barbara Hammond continues its run at CATF’s Marinoff Theater through August 2. For dates, times and directions to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, visit the official CATF web site.

For an overview of CATF 2015, check out our CDN preview article here.

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