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BWW Review: Arlekin Players' STATE VS NATASHA BANINA: Live Theater on Zoom

BWW Review: Arlekin Players' STATE VS NATASHA BANINA: Live Theater on Zoom

State vs Natasha Banina

Arlekin Players Theatre presents a newly-conceived, World Premiere, live theater art experiment; Directed by Igor Golyak, based on Yaroslava Pulinovich's Natasha's Dream

Translator, John Freedman; Animation by Anton Iakhontov, Video by Igor Golyak, Music composed by Vadim Khrapatchev

Featuring: Darya Denisova

Performances online using Zoom platform, Sunday evenings at 8 pm, May 17 through June 28 (no performance May 31). Tickets are FREE, with a suggested donation. For more information or to reserve a Zoom spot, visit arlekinplayers.com or call (617) 942-0022. Each performance will also offer a post-show discussion.

Fresh on the heels of a solid showing at the virtual 38th Annual Elliot Norton Awards, where the Boston Theater Critics Association recognized their achievements during the abbreviated 2019-2020 season with ten nominations and four wins, the Arlekin Players Theatre boldly launches a new production in cyberspace. State vs Natasha Banina is a live, interactive theater art experiment which manages to engage the audience as a collective and unified body, thanks to creative direction by Igor Golyak and Darya Denisova's uncanny portrayal of the adolescent title character.

One cannot dispute the fact that a key component of the theatrical experience is the connection between the actors and the audience, the exchange of energy and emotion that travels like electricity through the air, and the way that sitting in the dark, shoulder to shoulder with a group of strangers, heightens the impact. Since no one knows when that arrangement will be possible under the circumstances of the pandemic, theater artists are being challenged to find new ways to share their talents. If online is to be the way to go, Golyak is making a giant leap into that brave new world with this visionary production. As a theater-maker, he shows great promise as a cinematographer.

State vs Natasha Banina is set inside a zoom courtroom where the audience is the jury observing the young girl in confinement, telling her story directly to the camera lens. In her testimony, Natasha hopes to convince us that she is innocent of the charge of attempted manslaughter so she can go free and pursue her dreams. In approximately forty minutes, she poses, postures, flirts, dares, and pouts; her attitude runs the gamut of a catalogue of adolescent tempers. Growing up in an orphanage, Natasha's back story is a sad one, underscoring her ravenous desire for love and affirmation. Finding her to be both repellent and sympathetic begs the question - is she schizophrenic or are the jurors?

Denisova's portrayal is masterful on two fronts. First, her Natasha is fully realized and leads us to suspend all disbelief that the actor is a 16-year old. Second, her ability to play to the camera, alternately putting her face right up to it or hanging back, never breaking eye contact, grabs the viewer with a magnetic power. Throughout the course of the play, although it is a monologue, she also interacts convincingly with other characters in Natasha's story, especially a journalist who "appears" in animation (Anton Iakhontov) as a pair of disembodied, bespectacled eyes, and as a free-floating spaceman.

However, in the end, the most compelling part of Denisova's performance is her closing plea to the jury just before we are asked to vote on the verdict. A form pops up on the screen asking if we believe that the defendant is guilty based on the testimony. Moments later, the results are reported. I don't think it spoils anything to reveal that the opening night audience voted 68% YES. The crazy thing is that this exercise actually helps us to feel the presence of others who are watching the show with us. At the post-show discussion, Denisova was asked if she could feel the energy of the audience and she answered in the affirmative, perhaps aided by being privy to the questionnaire answers.

Golyak (Outstanding Direction, The Stone) and Denisova (Outstanding Actress, The Stone) took home two of the Arlekin Players' Norton Awards last week. They have been rehearsing for this production while quarantining at home, and the play is performed and shot live in a six-by-six corner of their living room cum theater space. Watching live theater on a screen will never replace the allure of being there in person, but kudos to Golyak and company for designing a template and laying a solid foundation to build upon. At one point, Natasha asks the jurors, "What is your dream?" The answer would probably be unanimous - to get back to live theater. Meanwhile, tune in to State vs Natasha Banina.

Photo credit: Darya Denisova (courtesy of Arlekin Players Theatre)


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From This Author Nancy Grossman