Dramas about war crimes are always a Herculean labor, but the Arlekin Players are presenting a very timely one about Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine.
Sasha Denisova staged the play in question – her own “The Gaaga (The Hague)” – back in February at a theater in Poland. Now she is codirecting the United States premiere with Arlekin head Igor Golyak at Cambridge’s Beat Brew Hall (closed during the pandemic), converted into a vivid bomb shelter setting by scenic designer Irina Kruzhilina.
Here audience members – seated on stools – become both eyewitnesses and judges at a fantastical war crimes tribunal. The play may be somewhat overlong and its historical detail fairly familiar, but Denisova’s imaginative array and Arlekin’s powerful staging make “The Gaaga” as vital as the defense of Ukraine itself.
At times calling to mind “Alice in Wonderland,” the play’s dream structure has a 17-year-old Ukranian known as “The Girl” visualizing the trial of not only Russian president Putin but also his complicit associates – among them an oligarch, an adviser, a propagandist, a general, and a mercenary.
The Girl – an orphan sent to Russia for adoption – addresses the audience “judges.” In documentary-like passages, she proceeds to catalogue the war crimes – especially attacks on hospitals, schools and civilians.
While there are many serious moments, considerable parody runs through the play – especially in the characterization of the often buffoonish accomplices and particularly whenever Putin – brilliantly played by Polina Dubovikova – enters swaggering, paces around the tribunal, and defends his military action with Orwellian doublespeak about Ukrainian “aggression.”
The parody stretches include heated observations by a conspiracy-obsessed associate named Kolya who contends that the detained defendants are being fed GMO food at the prison canteen and that geese are being employed for dangerous spraying. There is a humorous complaint about the detainees’ lack of Internet use. Even the cavalier prosecutor and defense attorney – sharply played respectively by Anne Gottlieb and Dev Luthra – speak of taking a trip to Marrakesh. Designer David R. Gammons complements the parody in his rich costume repertoire, especially in an amusing dress-up of some of the defendants as swans who dance and leap exuberantly in a scene from “Swan Lake.”
Although the trial interrogations sometimes seem to rely more on documentary-style exchanges, “The Gaaga” does possess revealing tirades by some of the defendants whose desperation sometimes calls to mind Sartre’s “No Exit.” One of the most notable refrain-like outbursts is the oligarch’s desperate insistence that the defendants did not bomb, kill and loot, and that they will eventually get out of there – statements rivetingly captured by Robert Pemberton. Daniel Boudreau and Robert Walsh also are standouts as defendants alternately blaming fellow accomplices and insisting that they are being scapegoated or misunderstood.
Darya Denisova – no relation to the playwright – makes the most of propagandist Margarita Simonyan’s glib assurances. By contrast, Taisiia “Taya” Federenko has all of The Girl’s innocence and vulnerability as well as her anger about the devastation of the war crimes. She fled Ukraine in February 2022 and is graduating high school in Connecticut.
Charlie Chaplin ingeniously attacked Hitler, Mussolini and antisemitism in his seminal 1940 film “The Great Dictator.” “The Gaaga” may not always have the fluidity and taut structure of that black comedy. Even so, Denisova’s impassioned play has a lot to say about the abuse of power and its impact on civilians. Arlekin Players Theatre’s forceful staging and its praiseworthy commitment to plays that unflinchingly address the human condition should set a high bar for all area theater. Θ
“The Gaaga (The Hague): A Fantastical Trial of Putin from a Bomb Shelter in Mariupol,” Arlekin Players Theatre, Beat Brew Hall,13 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, through June 18. Visit www.arlekinplayers.com.