122CC Second Floor Theater
150 First Ave. (at 9th St.), NYC
A week after Donald Trump was inaugurated, the atomic scientists who keep the famous Doomsday clock set it thirty seconds closer to midnight—the first such move since 1960. It occurred to me watching Intractable Woman, Stefano Massini’s harrowing “theatrical memo” about the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, that America could use a Doomsday gauge these days to remind us of the growing danger to journalists posed by Trump’s unrelenting anti-media hostility.
It wouldn’t be a clock. Maybe a page of newsprint with adjustable numbers of blacked-out lines. Or how about a gunsight trained on a reporter who moves closer or farther from the crosshairs?
Many level-headed people have been assuring us over the past 21 months that our democracy is stable and resilient, that despite everything it’s holding its own against an appalling, dubiously elected leader who neither respects nor understands its values. The checks and balances are working. The grownups are secretly in control. I defy anyone to come away from Massini’s painful play, cunningly directed for The Play Company by Lee Sunday Evans, feeling confident about any of that.
Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the elevator of her Moscow building in 2006 after a long and distinguished career reporting about the collapse of civil rights in Putin’s Russia and abuse of human rights in the Chechen War. Her devotion to facts, and her international reputation for sticking by them in the face of daunting obstruction, harassment and intimidation, earned her powerful enemies. Five people were eventually convicted in her killing, but no one in authority was ever held responsible for ordering it. The act was one of the clearest examples imaginable of anti-journalistic terrorism.
Anyone who considers this story an exclusively foreign nightmare, an incident unthinkable in America given our Constitutional freedoms and protections, should take his/her head out of the sand. In June, five employees of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, were murdered in the newspaper’s office by a guy pissed off at the way the paper covered a criminal case against him. Such violence—tolerated and even savored by millions—is the inevitable result of the ceaseless presidential griping about unfriendly news coverage, his drumbeat of tweets about “fake news,” his restrictions on access and credentials for qualified journalists, and his vilification of them as “the enemy of the people.” There is, alas, more pain and terror around the corner.
Intractable Woman is more a free-form dramatic essay and experiment in oratory than a traditional play. It tells a clear and powerful story about Politkovskaya’s experience reporting (mostly in Chechnya) and paints a compelling verbal portrait of her, drawing on her writings and interviews and writings about her in addition to invented speech. Yet Massini doesn’t specify the number of actors required, doesn’t divide the text into discrete speeches, doesn’t always specify locations, and often shifts between first- and third-person narration. All this leaves the director with the daunting task of inventing an action and circumstances that can give the material theatrical life without upstaging it, or otherwise undoing its gravity with self-important spectacle.
Lee Sunday Evans has managed this with quiet aplomb. Inspired by a memorial to murdered journalists in Moscow (which spectators can see in a photo upon leaving), she and set designer Marsha Ginsberg have created a vaguely disquieting space with pale blue walls, rows of Soviet-bright, red-and-gold banquet chairs, and a general low-key pomposity that recalls a cheerless reception room in a government ministry. Here three actresses (all superb—Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub, and Stacey Yen) dressed in nearly identical, dark business suits speak the text in ever-changing orientations to one another and the environment.
photo of Moscow memorial to murdered journalists
With dozens of subtle and precise shifts in manner and voice, the women conjure dozens of different identities, sometimes for no more than a few moments at a time, and thus make themselves agents of a remarkably fluid and efficient narration. Along the way, they repeatedly reconfigure the chairs, suggesting numerous locations and also a variety of moods and environmental pressures on the speakers. The spatial shifting carries surprising punch after a while. I’m not completely sure why, but I suspect it has to do with the ambient murmur of instability it generates, which echoes the institutional assault on truth that dogs Politkovskaya at all times. The combination of plasticity, fluidity and pluralism reads as a foil in the end for the singular integrity of that precious, heroic woman.
It also leaves us hoping against hope that we will somehow continue to see daylight between her circumstances and ours.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes and Jonathan Kalb