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One Hour Eighteen Minutes

Ordinary people take small steps that lead to a death in experimental Russian play

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2011:04:24 14:08:22

Yury Urnov (left) brings experimental Russian theater to America, starting in the Baltimore area.


One Hour Eighteen Minutes open previews

Towson University’s Center for the Arts Room 3054, April 29 and 30, 6 p.m. Kennan Institute Wilson Center, Washington D.C., May 4, 5:30 p.m. followed by a post-show discussion. Single Carrot Theater May 6, 7 p.m., followed by a post-show party.

In a nondescript Towson University conference room, the rehearsal for Yelena Gremina’s One Hour Eighteen Minutes, making its English-language debut in Baltimore, is underway. It looks less like a rehearsal than a press conference. Microphones are set up on the desks. The actors’ voices echo through portable speakers.

Yury Urnov, a ponytailed Russian director completing his second year as a Baltimore-based Fulbright Scholar, explains the setup. Hour is an investigation into the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer who was arrested after uncovering an embezzlement scheme by Russian officials. He died in pretrial detention, where he spent a year with a fatal combination of poor health, a freezing prison cell, and a corrupt judicial system. The plot is straightforward: Representatives of that system—guards, judges, and prison doctors—are interrogated about the facts surrounding his untimely death at 37. Some scenes are documented, others fictional.

Sitting behind desks, actor (and co-translator of the play, with Urnov) Stephen Nunns reads from the script. At the moment, he’s playing a distracted investigator, who is fiddling with his cell phone while the hapless Magnitsky is dying of “unknown causes” in a prison cell a few meters away. The investigator is wrapped up in the eternal question: Nokia or Seimens?

“Seimens is dead in the fucking water,” he reads. “The vibrate mode is useless. I can’t feel it when I’m walking, even if it’s in my fucking pocket. And it constantly freezes up. I mean, what the fuck?”

Another cell phone rings at the other end of the rehearsal space. It’s Urnov’s brother from Russia, wishing him a happy 35th birthday.

Nunns and Temple Crocker—two-thirds of the play’s cast, along with Shannon McPhee—use the call to take a five-minute break. Both juggle roles as minor players in the Russian judicial and prison bureaucracy. For the moment, the pair sits at a table with microphones, untangling mic cords and poring over the script, which is largely composed of “documentary material” culled from the actual investigation of Magnitsky’s death, as well as articles, letters, and interviews.

Russia, certainly, has spectacular stories to tell about injustice. It’s a country of eternal flames, hero cities, and prison camps, with a population that has been bulldozed by injustice and wounds, both self-inflicted and from outside sources. Joseph Stalin: 20 million killed, plus or minus a few million, who’s counting? The Nazis: 10-20 million killed. And in the 1970s, Americans rallied around the iconic resistors who became household names: Solzhenitsyn. Sakharov.

In comparison, Magnitsky’s case doesn’t fit the heroic mold. Hour is about the investigation of the death of a distinctly uncharismatic accountant who worked for a UK hedge fund and died in prison, awaiting trial, while issuing reams of complaints to prison authorities about the placing of, say, his cell toilet. But according to Urnov, it’s a story that people need to know. And the Baltimore-based Center for International Theatre Development (CITD), which is producing the play, agrees. The Russian original, directed by Mikhail Ugarov, had an enthusiastic reception in Moscow’s small but influential Theater.doc, a Moscow venue that has become a sort of CBGB’s for avant-garde Russian playwrights.

CITD has planned an extended run for Hour, composed of single shows around the country followed by open discussions. Open previews of the English translation take place this week at Towson University, followed by a performance at Washington, D.C.’s Kennan Institute Wilson Center May 4, before the one-night debut May 6 at Single Carrot Theatre. Currently, CITD is scheduling performances in New York and Boston as well.

Urnov returns to the room, smiling. “Sorry about that,” he says, referring to his brother’s call. “I only hear from him once a year.”

Rehearsal gets back into gear. For Urnov, this form of documentary theater is new artistic territory. Two-thirds of the script is drawn from documented sources, with several fictional interludes. “And that’s the hard part,” he says during a later interview. “Deciding how much is a direct medical presentation, and how much we create the characters. Right now we’re going in one direction and then in another. We’re trying to figure out how much to explore. It’s a complicated theatrical experience, which looks almost real.”

It may be a new experience for Urnov, but in Baltimore, over the last year or so, the staged docudrama has started to infiltrate both local theater and film. In November, Center Stage premiered ReEntry, drawn entirely from interviews with Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans. In January, the Theatre Project hosted a sold-out production of Melissa Dunphy’s Gonzales Cantata, a miniopera with a libretto drawn from the U.S. Senate’s 2007 grilling of U.S. attorney Alberto Gonzales. Single Carrot Theatre’s annual dramatization of Baltimore homicide reports (drawn from City Paper’s Murder Ink column) is in its fourth year. And director Matt Porterfield’s microbudget Putty Hill has received national attention while teasing the boundary between reality and fiction in a Baltimore neighborhood.

And then there’s The Wire, where the dynamics of dysfunction in Baltimore’s criminal justice system have been turned into found material. Hour’s compact production—assembled largely from transcripts of the Russian court system, circa 2009—may strike the same chord for Wire fans.

Here, that institutional dysfunction is Russia’s culture of bribery (vzyatki), which is more than a crime. It’s a practice that wraps itself around the system, regardless of ideology. It is a great equalizer, with its own charisma. If anything, the characters in Hour—underlings all—find some pleasure in the fact that even the super-rich, or at least their lawyers, can fall into its pincers if they don’t watch out.

And in the world of vzyatki, the only unforgivable sin is not accepting the system’s ruthless logic. According to the play’s characters, at least, the facts are self-explanatory. Magnitsky was a tax lawyer who got too big for his britches, so he wound up in pretrial detention at Matrosskaya Tishina prison. Either through innocence or apparent stupidity, he railed constantly against perceived violations of European Union standards for prisoners. He didn’t pose much of a threat to the system, but he certainly forced some of the lower-level prison guards, investigators, and ambulance drivers on the defensive. And they fought back hard. He ultimately died in his prison cell, of toxic shock and heart failure after being denied health care.

Hour’s colorful characters come to life, in their own idiosyncratic ways, as they try to evade responsibility for his death. A prison doctor—the one who left Magnitsky untreated—plaintively stumbles as she tries to recite the Hippocratic Oath. A paramedic, who’s been accused of negligence, is asked why she had turned the radio up when Magnitsky was dying in the back. (She responds by asking who told the court that.) A prison investigator is being grilled about denying Magnitsky treatment. (His response: “Yeah, well, what about the conditions for the people who work in the jails?”)

With a few weeks of rehearsal left, though, the three-person cast is facing a tough task: to define recognizably American characters as they negotiate a Russian state that is layered with Gogolian absurdity, Soviet dysfunction, post-Soviet economics, and a new, modern, transnational corruption. Though Hour is Urnov’s fourth production after two years in residence at Towson University’s Theatre Department, he says it is his biggest challenge. “In this space [of the conference hall] some of the things you avoid in the theater turn into useful tools,” he says. “It’s very different ground.

“Is the message going to be that all people are good? That’s not true. Are all these people horrible? That’s not true either. It’s about normal people taking small steps that somehow lead to somebody dying. Each one of us can become the vessel for something really horrible. I think that’s the bigger thing [for Americans to understand]. I think each of these characters is more or less aware that something went wrong.”

And Magnitsky, the one person who doesn’t appear on stage, is the one person who avoids playing the victim. Instead, he fights back. “And you wonder why he did it,” Urnov says. “It was a conscious decision. That’s what fascinates me.”

In Russia, according to Urnov, Magnitsky has become an unlikely hero. In Baltimore, he isn’t exactly a household name. But with a series of strategically planned performances, Urnov and CITD are betting that his message will resonate: You may not be able change the system, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it.

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