nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
January 12, 2008
Have you ever wondered why there are metal rivets around the pockets of Levi's blue jeans? The story has it that Jacob Davis, the man who purchased swaths of denim from Levi Strauss & Co., a local wholesaler, had a customer who repeatedly ripped the pockets off his pants. Annoyed by the customer, Davis hit upon the idea of attaching metal rivets to the pockets' stress points to keep the fastened. Fashionable and practical, the riveted pants were an instant success and turned into the most popular clothing item in the world.
Nikolai Khalezin, the writer, director, producer, and performer at the center of The Free Theatre's production of Generation Jeans, is a also a rivet. He takes a stage full of seemingly disparate and symbolic set pieces—a set of prison bars, a metal stool, eight flags representing as many countries, a set of plastic cartoon eyes, various costume pieces representing the many styles jeans have taken on, and a vinyl-spinning DJ Laurel—and through a series of anecdotes and observations, turns it into a stronger, more enlightened space.
Part of the play's power comes from the conditions in which it was created. Because their shows deal with political and moral issues in their homeland—Belarus, widely acknowledged as "Europe's last dictatorship"—The Free Theatre, based in Minsk, is not and cannot be an officially recognized theatre company. Their shows are a series of secrets and risks: they are conceived, rehearsed, and performed in secret, in constantly rotating venues. According to their program and four articles I was able to find on the Internet, company members are routinely harassed, as are the various venues that allow them to perform.
The performance now playing at The Public lacks that specific immediacy. The space is wide enough to accommodate an enlarged set as well as a screen mounted high above the stage, onto which the supertitles are projected. The play is performed in Belarusian and spoken at a relatively quick pace. If you're sitting close to the stage, the constant shifting between stage and screen may take some getting used to.
The space creates a distance between the performers and the audience. That distance was apparent at one point in the performance when Khalezin asked the audience, in the spirit of sparking our enthusiasm, to repeat after him, that we are free. In a more limited space, the effect of asking an audience at risk for participating in the theatrical process might be met with a more enthusiastic and revelatory response. But in the comfort of The Public, the effect was more sedate. Because of this, it took Khalezin a good ten minutes to create the necessary intimacy.
Once he shifts into storytelling mode though, the piece takes off. Generation Jeans is a semi-autobiographical piece about his experiences living, working, and creating art in Belarus. The bulk of the material deals with his reactions to being imprisoned for his activities. He describes the physical confines of his imprisonment. He turns a stool upside down and settles it between the legs while being interrogated; he paces back and forth in an area no more than four feet long; he meditates behind his constructed bars to fend off claustrophobic panic attacks. These experiences, reinforced by his admission that there are people undergoing more frequent and intense periods of incarceration, effectively convey the physical reality of the overall situation.
And the small details he uses to describe his relationships with fellow inmates—the tiny rebellions, the small but substantial acts of generosity—paint a remarkably vivid picture of the world he is describing.
All this might seem dour if not for the intelligence and humanity embodied by the performance at its center. Khalezin tempers these horrors with a good deal of humor and plain common sense. At the beginning of the show, he goes into a wonderful description of his life as a young man selling jeans in Minsk. He describes the different types of jeans and eloquently tells what the garments as well as the selling and wearing of them represent. Freedom. Possibility. Rebellion. Jeans are the line on which the play hangs, whether their stitches are digging into his legs as a prisoner or they are inciting an argument with his daughter. They are the anchor which keep him grounded through the passage of insane times. And they are a flag. "The flag of the jeans generation. The generation of free people."
The climax of the show comes in a story in which a man lights himself on fire. I don't want to give the story away but the episode ends on a note of hopeful defiance and with an odd but truthful proclamation. He says that all dictatorships will end but the feelings of their termination should never be lost. He let the phrase hang for a moment while DJ Laurel spun the last of his vinyl accompaniment and the truth of it hit home. I was glad he did. That statement contained a hope and a warning and underlined the responsibilities inherent in both.