17 Jun 2023 News in English 3 min. to read

In ‘The Gaaga,’ Putin and his cronies are held to account, but it’s only a fantasy

CAMBRIDGE — Blankets are available if you get chilly. The performance of “The Gaaga,” after all, takes place in the basement of a makeshift bomb shelter — the now-closed Beat Brew Hall restaurant in Harvard Square — and the lobby has some curtained-off spaces with blankets and pillows, offering a little bit of privacy and a place for refugees to rest. Once inside the theater, the setting shifts to the dreamlike world of a young woman’s fantasy about an imprisoned Vladimir Putin and his associates awaiting trial in the Gaaga (the Hague).

Welcome to the always imaginative, viscerally engaging world of Arlekin Players Theatre and the US premiere of “The Gaaga (The Hague): A Fantastical Trial of Putin from a Bomb Shelter in Mariupol.” Our guide and sometime narrator is The Girl (17-year-old Taisiia Fedorenko, who fled Kyiv in 2022 when the Russians launched the war against her country). Her playful innocence in the face of the senseless murders of innocent people — portrayed with devastating grace — only amplifies the horrors of the invasion.

The mix of fact and fiction is handled simply. Each prisoner is introduced by The Girl with basic facts about his or her role in Putin’s orbit while a photo of the real person they portray is projected on screens behind them. And then each character does something ridiculous: The conspiracist pulls out a goose; the propagandist swings a watch on a chain like a hypnotist; a political leader knits for Putin. These caricatures exaggerate the absurdity of Putin’s enablers while exposing how destructive and dangerous they are. Their clever twists of truth during the trial are determined declarations of innocence, spoken even as the impact of their horrific deeds can be seen just beyond the courtroom.

Playwright and co-director Sasha Denisova asks the audience to lean into a world that can feel far removed from us, which is why the immersive nature of the production becomes so powerful. The stage includes a claw-footed tub and several rocking horses — which become places to lounge, seduce, or simply sit. In addition to an array of projections, there’s a jukebox that comes to life to start the play, a pool table, a forbidding mask, and other props that come into focus as needed. There are moments in “The Gaaga,” which is also offered as a virtual production, when some projections clearly reflect choices made for the virtual audience. Characters pick up cameras and point them at each other unobtrusively, while at other times actors effortlessly don helmet cams, staying in character even as they film pieces of the action.

Denisova’s visual choices, along with co-director Igor Golyak’s juxtaposition of whimsy with tragedy, are thrilling in the darkest and lightest senses of the word. It is impossible to look away because Denisova’s transitions from the perpetration of war crimes to the clowning antics of the Russian leadership are remarkably fluid. When the prisoners pathetically panic at their confinement, shouting “Let me out!,” a woman quietly says, “That’s what people say under the rubble.”

One devastating scene follows a woman who carries her husband’s coat, hoping to bring it to him in prison. Behind her, a general is playing pool oblivious to the lives being lost at his command. When the pool cue strikes the ball, it echoes like a gunshot, and the woman gently lays her husband’s coat on the ground.

Near the play’s end, a billionaire Putin ally contemplates suicide while remembering Russians’ greatness, especially performances of the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Swan Lake.” At that moment, each of the prisoners dons a feather and performs a brief dance solo.

Golyak and Denisova have gathered a diverse and impressive ensemble, each of whom contributes to the sometimes discomfiting mix of comic relief within the confines of tragedy.

The Girl’s dream is justice. Arlekin’s theatrical realization of it is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring.


Written and directed by Sasha Denisova. Co-directed by Igor Golyak. Environmental design by Irina Kruzhilinia.

Presented by Arlekin Players Theatre & (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab. At Beat Brew Hall, Cambridge, through June 18. Tickets $37-$56 (live performance), $28 (streaming). arlekinplayers.com

Author : By Terry Byrne Boston Globe June 16, 2023