Russian play about judicial corruption comes to the Capitol

DC Theatre Scene

The City of Baltimore has recently found itself under the harsh gaze of the Russia Today: in a 500 word piece, shaped by an hour or so of immersion in Baltimore’s one-block red zone, and many hours evidently spent watching “The Wire,” a Russian reporter dutifully described Baltimore as a war zone of economic imbalance. A few days later, Russia Today parroted a Baltimore Sun piece describing Baltimore’s homeless problem.

Now, with a production of One Hour Eighteen Minutes, it looks like Baltimore is ready to return the favor with a ruthless theatrical investigation of Russian judicial corruption.

On November 16, One Hour Eighteen Minutes, directed by Baltimore based Russian director Yury Urnov and supported by the Baltimore-based Center for International Theatre Development, is going to play at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington DC.

One Hour Eighteen Minutes is a piece of documentary theatre authored by contemporary Russian playwright Yelena Gremina, who assembled the script entirely from court records, interviews, and witness testimony from preliminary investigation of the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky, a lawyer for the UK-based Hermitage Fund – a fund set up in the mid nineties to promote capital investment in Russia — ruffled feathers by exposing a $230 million Russian tax scam, which involved Russian police diverting funds to corrupt officials. Shortly afterwards, in 2008, he was arrested and held without trial in Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison. After a year without medical treatment, and suffering from pancreatitis, he died in prison November, 2009.

One Hour Eighteen Minutes had its premier in May 2010, in Moscow’s Teatr.doc, a small independent theatre. There, Magnitsky’s name needed little introduction. Magnitsky has become a cause célèbre for observers inside and outside who feel that the Russian judicial system has become an economic tool for an increasingly oligarchic class. It remains in the Teatr.doc repertory.

Russian director Yury Urnov, and the Center for International Theatre Development, have made it their mission to bring the play – and Magnitsky’s story – to the United States in a translated version. Last April, the three-person cast, composed of two faculty members and a graduate student from Towson University’s Theatre Department, gave one performance at DC’s Kennan Institute, where it played before a full house in the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Since then, the issue has not gone away. The Hermitage Fund’s CEO William Browder, and Maryland Senator Ben Cardin have campaigned relentlessly for accountability in the death of Magnitsky. And, with the assistance (logistical, not financial) of Ben Cardin’s office, Urnov and Center For International Theatre Development have found a way to take their production to DC once more.

The play itself has a stark message: in Russia’s judicial system, money talks. On this side of the Atlantic, there’s a strong push to use American influence to press for a meaningful investigation into Magnitsky’s death. In Russia, current president Medvedev was elected while promising a reform of the judicial system.

Parliamentary elections are coming up in December, and there’s little suspense about the outcome. In March 2012, Vladimir Putin is almost certainly destined for election to a new presidential term, a signal to many that the country is settling into the reality of a single party oligarchy. In July 11, with the prompting of the office of Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the United States issued a denial of visas to a handful of Russian officials implicated in the circumstances surrounding Magnitsky’s death. [The state department doesn’t want to do that.] (On early November, Russia responded with a similar list of eleven Americans who would not be allowed to enter the country.)

On October 22nd, in response to public pressure, the Russian government announced a renewed investigation into his death. But the investigation has limited itself to fingering several medics and low-level functionaries. Many, including Magnitsky’s mother, worry that this is a distraction from the central issue: that the system itself is corrupt.

The Russian independent theatrical world, among others, is doing what it can to make sure that that truth isn’t lost on people.

One Hour Eighteen Minutes is drawn almost exclusively from testimony and court records in the Magnitsky investigation. As the three actors read from the selected transcripts, taking up roles of the doctors and officials being investigated, the play offers viewers an unvarnished view of exactly how the system works (or doesn’t work, depending on whose side you’re on.)

Urnov, who came to Baltimore in 2009 as a Fulbright scholar, was in the United States when the Magnitsky case made its way onto the headlines. He had never really considered himself a practitioner of political theatre – and this is his first foray into documentary theatre — but something about the Magnitsky case made him change his mind.

“In Russia it’s simple, because the theatre starts taking up political issues when they aren’t on TV. Theatre takes control.”

Inspired by what Teatr.doc was doing in Moscow in the bare-bones production directed by Mikael Ugarov, Urnov got to work on this side of the Atlantic with members of the Towson Theatre Department. He and Stephen Nunns (director of Towson University’s MFA program) translated the Russian play into a workable American vernacular. He and his three-actor cast (including Nunns, Temple Crocker, and Shannon McPhee) produced the American premier of One Hour Eighteen Minutes at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC on May 4th, 2011.

The one-show production was a success. While he acknowledged that Magnitsky isn’t the familiar name here that it is in Russia, the production seemed to have a stirring effect on all who came.

“I had that sense in the [Wilson Theatre], that everyone was there,” he says. “It’s not a feeling I usually get.”

Now, he’s preparing to bring the message even closer to the heart of DC shakers and movers with production in the U.S. Capitol, the Cannon House Office Building. That’s in part thanks to the efforts of the office of Ben Cardin, the Maryland Senator who has long been an outspoken advocate of Magnitsky’s cause, and who sponsored the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act”, which calls for travel bans against those in the Russian government who were deemed responsible for Magnitsky’s death.

Urnov has been in the United States for three years now. After completing his Fulbright Fellowship, he headed back to his native Moscow for several months this summer. Now he’s back in Baltimore, where he’s teaching at Towson University’s Department of Theatre and is a Resident Artist at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Sitting in a Baltimore café, I asked him to begin by explaining why, at this point, he’s taking the show back on the road. The 35 year-old Urnov explained that in a year of working on the play, he’s learned a lot, both as a director, and as a concerned Russian. In some ways, his experience directing this documentary play has caused him to take a closer look at his own country’s current state of affairs.

“I think that when you’ve been working on it for a year, you have more freedom. Professionally, [producing this play] is a very different level of professional responsibility. You know, Hamlet is Hamlet. But now, because we’ve been dealing with this [in real time], I think we’ve found a more appropriate theatrical version for an American audience.”

Urnov is in his mid-thirties, which means that he came of age as a director in the late 90’s, just as the iron fist of Communist Russia had been lifted. The new found artistic freedom liberated directors and encouraged a new generation of outspoken playwrights. Ten years later, though, after a decade of Putin, the theatre community is facing a reassessment of their own role as artists in a country where power and money seem to have frozen the major media organs into submission.

Urnov is good humored but bleak about the effect that the current political oligarchy is having on average Russians.

“ The problem is…on a very big level in Russia, the question is, is humanism still alive? Or have we stepped into a time when money actually is more important than human life? And what exactly is the price of life in Russia?”

During his imprisonment, Magnitsky filed 450 legal briefs protesting the conditions in his cell – an act that Urnov is saying prompts two responses now in Russia: either he was a hero, or he was insane. Magnitsky, suffering from acute pancreitis, seemed oblivious of the fact that complaining about cell conditions and filing legal briefs isn’t the way to improved health care in a Russian prison.

“If Magnitsky really had pains, then people assume, he’s mentally ill. Something is wrong with him. So on some basic level, most Russians accept the [judicial] system for what it is. They don’t love it, but they completely believe in the values of the system. Where money is actually more important than life.”
Magnitsky, with his mountain of legal briefs, seemed unwilling to accept the reality that in Russia, judicial corruption is becoming recognized as the status quo.

“That’s how it works,” says Urnov, shrugging.” That’s normal.”

Urnov cites several different, recent cases, which seem to indicate that the Russian government has figured out how to deal with economic troublemakers like Magnitsky. Most recently, on October 4th, a lawyer for the Yukos Oil company, Vassily Aleksanyan, died in a similar fashion. A year ago, he was arrested and then held without treatment, even while he was being ravaged with Cancer and HIV. By the time he was released, says Urnov, he was fatally ill. He had been effectively dealt a death sentence.
“They were basically telling him, you must die within a year. And that’s what happened.”

These cases and others have brought these abuses and this attitude international attention.
“And I think that’s important. Because that was happening, and it is happening. For a while no one was paying attention to it.”

When he returned to Russia this summer, Urnov returned to a country which is gradually sliding into what he describes as a semi-delusional state. People enjoy small freedoms, cell phones, and an economy built (precariously) on the price of oil. Theatres are left to do their own thing, artists, too. Beneath that veneer of post-communist democracy, though, is a harder reality.

“Democracy here is an imitation. There is an imitation of the election process – which is pretty obvious. There is an imitative quasi-democracy. With parties and so-called elections. All of that is very theatrical. Totally fake. And the level of absurdity is growing step by step.

“There is this unreal life. And underneath that is a very real life. In the upper world there are interesting things and ideas happening, like modernization, like the ‘reform of the judicial system’, but they’re happening in the world of [political] theatre. In the real world, everything is still very straightforward.”

Putin himself, over the last several years, has been reaching back to the Soviet Era cult of personality, with staged photos and videos showing him in wetsuits and martial arts uniforms, kissing tigers, and digging up architectural relics. Does the Russian public accept this hook, line, and sinker?
“Well, that’s my fucking question,“ Urnov says, with a wan smile. Most Russians and the oligarchy seem to have found grounds for agreement.

“The government says: we’re doing our thing. We’re slowly improving your way of life. So while we are following our promises, raising pensions, you close your eyes to anything else. And this agreement kind of works.”

But as someone who refused to understand the “real world,” Magnitsky has become an increasingly fascinating character to Urnov.

“I’m still stimulated by this guy, Magnitsky. His logic is wrong. The normal person would understand that the more complaints you make, the worse the conditions become. His really weird behavior, his crazy behavior. What do you do with serious pains? You find a way to cooperate. If you’re not doing that, it means that you’re simulating dates. The prison doctor pronounces it openly. There are no secrets there.”
From the point of view of the characters in the play – medical orderlies, prison guards, and minor officials — Magnitsky was hurting himself and hurting them by challenging the system. In over a year, Urnov says, those characters have become more defined. They are normal people, trying to function in a broken system.

So how do we label the emerging political culture in Russia? Urnov is still wrestling with that question. I heard something very interesting a few days ago. In the 90’s it was all money, power, money: if you had money, you get power, and then you get more money. Now, it’s a little different. If you have power, then you get money, and then you get more power. Someone will invent a name for that, either way, it’s a mixture of state and money.”

But regular Russians – including the characters represented in this production – are gradually recreating themselves in this new system. Urnov says that the more he and his cast work with them, the more they have come to understand where they stand.
“I think it’s coming up more and more through the characters, through their belief and understanding of the system. I think their positions are becoming stronger.”

Russians, of course, have a long history of literary characters who have learned to survive, and even thrive, in an atmosphere of twisted logic. I bring up that “Dead Souls,” the 19th century novel by Nikolai Gogol, created unforgettable characters who tried to function in a society operating on a twisted logical premise. Urnov agrees: the characters in One Hour Eighteen Minutes are faced with the same predicament.

“When you’re playing the game, you understand you’re playing the game. You don’t kick the soccer ball into the wrong goal. The problem is that this system of rules that they’re following isn’t what it pretends to be.”

“The money, the cell phones, the cars, the clothes, make the system work. That’s a big difference. In the Soviet Union, there was no phone option, no leaving option.”

Now, he says, Putin may have found the perfect balance. Those who want to leave the country can leave. The elections are getting shut down. But the government doesn’t try to clamp down on small papers or theatre.

“They’re very practical. During the revolution of 1917, there was a saying: ‘The guy’s life isn’t worth the cost of the bullet that killed him.’ They’re very practical.”

The American production, however, has a different challenge.

“In Russia, where it played for one and a half years, people came to the productions with very strong feelings about the Magnitsky trial. So it was delivered in a straightforward way. Which is actually great. But it’s not possible here.”

When the play comes to the Capitol on November 16th, he hopes a more intensely theatrical American production may prompt those stronger feelings on this side of the Atlantic. I remind him that the U.S. Capitol isn’t generally looked at these days as a venue for getting things done. Urnov shrugs.
“There’s a quote I remember hearing but don’t know who said it: Artists aren’t doctors. They are pain. They send a signal that something is going really wrong. So that’s what we’ll do.”
And the Americans can take it from there.

One Hour Eighteen Minutes will also be playing at:
– Nov 15 at 6pm: Baltimore City Community College, Catonsville Campus Call 410-704-ARTS (2787) Free and open to the public
– Nov 16 at 6pm: 121 Cannon House Office Building at Independence Ave SE and First St SE, Washington,DC.
– Feb 17 – 19, 2012: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St, Baltimore, MD
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