Balagula Theatre is having a little fun with a sensitive topic for its first play of 2014: terrorism.
Terrorism is the title of the play by brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov that opens this weekend at the Downtown Arts Center.
Director Natasha Williams seizes the opportunity for double meaning: "We are promoting, recommending and raising funds for Terrorism. We hope to be on everyone's watch list. We have 20 trained and talented performers, not counting the tech support. The team leader is from Russia. The whole thing started in Russia and went global."
In post-9/11 America, it still might seem too early to laugh at terrorism, but Williams, a Moscow native, says humor is the right approach for the play to illuminate what she sees as the true terrorism at work.
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"The play is an attempt to create a satirical portrait of contemporary society," she says. "It's funny and scary.
"It has this combination of funny, bitter satire along with bitter introspection."
Balagula co-artistic director Ryan Case says, "It's a fun show for people to experience while we're playing around with these heavy themes. People don't automatically think with a play like Terrorism that it can be examined with humor. They get the idea and message and concept across with that, instead of knocking someone over the head."
Williams and Case say the play, which has more than 20 actors, is like a Robert Altman movie in which seemingly disparate story lines come together for one event in the end.
Among the plots are a passionless, adulterous tryst; an office too absorbed in bickering to realize that a worker has left to commit suicide; first-responders mocking some of the cases they have handled; and some old ladies on a playground passing judgment on people they see. Finally, the action comes around to an airport during a bomb scare.
Terrorism has an unusually large cast for an area production, and it led Balagula to move the show from its usual home at Natasha's Bistro & Bar to the nearby black-box theater at the Downtown Arts Center.
The change of venue allows Balagula to run a weekend performance schedule as opposed to its usual Sunday-to-Wednesday lineup. It also has added a performance at 10:30 p.m. Jan. 18, designed to attract younger patrons not quite ready to go out at the theater's usual 7:30 curtain time.
It also has let the company spread out.
The scenes are set up around the perimeter of the theater space. Patrons are seated in the middle and are required to turn their chairs as scenes change.
On the periphery of numerous scenes are mannequins, representing the terror people feel that, Williams says, is really quite benign.
"What you realize is that the biggest threat does not come from these mannequins that you see around, but from all the people sitting around you," she says.
Terrorism was written in 2002, and it might seem logical for American audiences to associate that year with the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Williams says that the playwrights already were familiar with smaller-scale terrorism and its insidious psychological effects as part of everyday life in Russia. In the play, they wanted to make a point about the loss of connection and humanity engendered by living in constant fear of attack.
"As we live in fear and suspicion, we become more self-absorbed and much less trusting," Williams says. "We become more callous. The play is more about callousness and indifference that terrorizes us: the disregard of human life, of human soul or human feelings. Callousness is more the theme of the play than anything else, and this callousness terrorizes, scares and hurts people around us."
IF YOU GO
What: Balagula Theatre's production of the play by Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan 10-12, 16-19; 10:30 p.m. Jan. 18
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $20, $15 students, $10 each in groups of 10 or more. Available at Downtown Arts Center ticket office, by calling (859) 225-0370 or at Balagula.com.