Hot property in the Baltics lands at La MaMa



State violence collides with secret violence against loved ones

Aliide speaks. She is a weather-worn woman of 70, looking back on when she was a girl of 20 in this same house in what was then Soviet-occupied Estonia. Her lover, Hans, in those days of her youth — her sister Ingel’s husband, an Estonian who’d fought the Russians and lost — is still asleep in his hideaway in the basement behind a heavy chest of drawers, when the Stalinist security thugs come looking for him.

ALIIDE: Hans didn’t even wake up when they came to get us, agreed to go quietly. We didn’t want him to know. We’d been woken by the dogs barking even before they came to the door and we knew exactly what it meant. By the time they knocked we were standing in the kitchen all ready to go.

It was our first time and they took us straight to headquarters — to the Town Hall. Me, Ingel and Linda [the 10-year-old]. There was a young boy with them, a boy from the village. He couldn’t look at us. We’d been in the same school. In the cellar of the Town Hall there were two naked lamps [light bulbs] hanging from the ceiling. A soldier was eating bread and drinking vodka. Knocking back his glass. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve the way the Russians do. He offered us some. We declined.

SOLDIER 1 (voice only): We know that you know the whereabouts of Hans….

SOLDIER 2 (voice only): You have such a charming daughter.

ALIIDE: We said we didn’t know anything about Hans….

SOLDIER 2 (voice only): What’s your daughter’s name?…The girl’s almost a woman….

And that’s where the nightmare begins.

It’s all in the skillful telling, old Aliide talking about the days of — remembering the days of — young Aliide, a woman who will survive in the face of anything, at the cost of anything and anybody. All this in a jolting piece of theater that’s by a young woman who herself has hit the ripe old age of 33.

Her name is Sofi Oksanen. She was born in Finland to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother. Her play is called “Purge” (“Puhdistus”), and it’s a very hot property indeed in the Baltic countries of Eastern Europe and elsewhere abroad. Its author liked it so much — was so fascinated by its characters, who wouldn’t leave her alone — that she then further explored it as a novel, which in itself has turned into a best-seller. Some share of play and novel, comes out of the memories of Oksanen’s Estonian grandmother.

This I learn from another remarkable young-minded woman, Zishan Ugurlu — the Turkish-born director of the English-language version of this play (translated by Eva Buchwald) that runs February 10-20 at the late Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa E.T.C.

La MaMa regulars will surely remember actress Ugurlu from her 2004 performance as Helen of Troy in Andre Serban’s staging of “The Trojan Women.” Well, now she is not only the director of “Purge” and of the Actors Without Borders resident company that’s staging it, but also the set designer and the person who persuaded Oksanen to have the play come to New York.

“Instead of a conscious and naturalistic set,” Ugurlu said over some blueberry pancakes last week, “I’m trying for a set that is both conscious and subconscious — the landscape of Aliide’s body and soul.”

And some body and soul this is. The Aliide of “Purge,” I hazarded, has much in common with Bertolt Brecht’s eternal survivor, Mother Courage.

“Why yes!” exclaimed Ugurlu, who perhaps had been too busy to think of that. She sees Aliide also as a Medea-like figure, “living on the edge; at the last moment she betrays everything and everybody, her husband, her sister, her granddaughter. At one point she becomes a sandwich in bed between her husband, Martin, and her lover, Hans, her sister’s husband.

“It’s like a thriller,” said the director. “Like a Hitchcock movie.” She took a breath before saying, “I love this play for the issues it deals with — sex, politics, and power.”

Also as it happens, rape, torture murder, and other such Stalinist and non-Stalinist pleasantries.

“Torture,” said Ugurlu. “Everybody does it on one level or another. We do violence against our loved ones on an almost unconscious level. And then the violence of the state collides with the secret violence against loved ones. The discourse of Aliide’s husband Martin is almost like the discourse of Stalin. ‘You are my comrade.’ ‘You are my Motherland.’”

MARTIN: All right, all right, Aliide. You did the right thing. You did your duty. You acted as a progressive, socially aware person should act. That’s a noble thing. Your driving force is your devotion to your community, to your Motherland. That’s admirable. You are guided by natural class instinct. That’s what I first admired in you. The very first time I saw you at the party meeting. I sensed at once, there’s something special about that girl!…Finally when I saw you sitting in the corner, reading your Lenin — you looked like a picture or a painting — I could tell you had what it takes to rise above the class you were born into….

Stop! Stop! Can’t someone please stop him? I’d betray the crashing bore myself, if only to stop him. Of course I’d have to marry him first.

Fortunately for this production, the role of Martin is being carried by the distinguished Finnish movie actor Peter Franzén. The Aliide — old Aliide — is Jillian Lindig. Young Aliide is Maren Bush. Grant Neale is Hans.

Ugurlu says she owes everything to Ellen Stewart for bringing her here seven years ago, giving her a place to live, work to do, getting her a Green Card.

The English of this young artist from Istanbul is not only quite good but quite colorful.

“That too is thanks to Ellen,” says Ugurlu.