A unique brand of 21st-century fear and paranoia takes center stage in Balagula Theatre’s production of Terrorism, the Presnyakov brothers' dark, absurdist comedy that has gained international acclaim since its Russian debut in 2002. Unconventional staging in the Downtown Arts Center's black box theater, careful direction by Natasha Williams, and the playwrights’ atypical narrative structure make for an unusual but highly effective evening at the theater.
The show features a series of six seemingly unrelated vignettes that dwell on disturbing elements of contemporary life. Toward the play’s end, however, it becomes apparent that the different stories are hauntingly tied together, suggesting everyone participates in human-made tragedies in their own way. This may have been true for the history of humanity, contemporary technology, particularly the ubiquity of the Internet and cell phones across all social classes, seems to amplify the sick parts of society and ourselves. Indeed, the use of the word “viral” in electronic communication is telling.
Balagula is equipped with its own black box theater at its usual home, Natasha's Bistro, but the move to the Downtown Arts Center allowed Williams, who also designed the set, to embrace an unorthodox but impactful, interactive stage design. The audience, not the play's action, is placed in-the-round, with chairs occupying the center of the floor. The vignettes take place on risers around the perimeter of the theater, and audience members shift their chairs clockwise several times until the final scene literally takes them full circle.
Underscoring the public notion that post-9/11 airports are a place of fear and justified paranoia, audience members are treated like passengers on an airplane. They even walk through a pretend metal detector at a security checkpoint just to get into the theater. Ryan Case, in a wordlessly sardonic role as a flight attendant, directs the audience’s movements from scene to scene.
By placing the audience in the center, with dark scenarios rising up and surrounding them, Williams underscores one of the play’s primary themes about how ordinary, “innocent” people have become desensitized to increasingly graphic horrors that seem to constantly surround them.
A cast of more than 20 actors ably portrays characters in loosely-related vignettes that are draped in realism but driven by absurdism, a darkly comic critique of the gauche inappropriateness of many of the behaviors we now consider “normal,” like how a bomb squad police officer (Zachary Dearing) obsessively takes photos of gruesome tragedies on his phone to share.
As his superior, a grizzled Joe Gatton compellingly skewers the young officer for spreading the very thing he is supposed to prevent.
From the testosterone-laden power struggles in the towel-snapping bomb squad locker room to the desperate S&M tactics of adulterers who can't get into the act because the risk is pretend, the notion that the psychological drive behind terrorist acts — the impulse to overpower — is in all of us is an uncomfortable notion to say the least. But good theater isn’t about comfort, it’s about being a more developed human being, which includes awareness of our darker impulses, an acknowledgement of our baser natures so that we are not victims of them.
Walking alone up the stairwell in the Central Library parking garage after the show, I couldn’t help but think what a vulnerable target I would make for some nameless attacker. Was I reckless to be a woman alone in a parking garage stairwell on a Saturday night? Or is it more absurd to always be looking over one’s shoulder, bracing for the worst to happen? These are the kinds of questions Terrorism leaves you asking long after curtain.
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.