By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Trains, they’re like time portals,” says the title character of Alina, who steps into one at the outset. On a train you leave one world and you arrive in another.
The question the drives the gripping new play by Ukrainian-Canadian playwright Lianna Makuch, premiering in Patrick Lundeen’s veritable barrage of a production, is whether you can ever come back.
Makuch’s story of Alina and her milieu of extraordinary “ordinary” people who step outside their lives and volunteer to fight for Ukraine’s future — inspired by on-location research in Ukraine —are a powerful indicator that in war there are no return tickets. The “real world” and the you who moved through it cannot be found; they no longer exist.
Lundeen’s Pyretic production, in the tiny Studio Theatre venue, is a test case for theatrical invention in flinchingly close quarters. It’s a bone-rattling first-person solo evocation of the horrifying multi-sense assault of war, and the nightmare strangeness of PTSD — in sound (electronic composer Noor Dean Musani and sound designer Aaron Macri), in lighting (Stephanie Bahniuk), in virtuoso movement (choreographer Amber Borotsik), and in a remarkably vivid performance by Christina Nguyen.
Nguyen literally ricochets through a world framed by the sandbags and stark collapsible beams of Bahniuk’s set. She stars as the fierce, impatient, hot-tempered 19-year-old university kid who boards the train that goes to the front line of a war: the escalating battleground near Donetsk Airport in eastern Ukraine, during the 2014 Russian invasion. She’s armed with a backpack, supplies for front-line volunteers, and the memory of a 2013 student protest in the main square of Kyiv that was brutally suppressed by police enforcers of the Russian puppet regime and “changed nothing.”
What motivates Alina? It’s a play of double-negatives that don’t cancel each other out: “I can’t do nothing any more,” Alina declares. “This will not all be for nothing.” War, in short, is something you can’t not do when the chips are down, which is where they’ve been for countless years in Ukraine.
Alina, though, doesn’t explain — and arguably doesn’t set about explaining — the mystery of a restless character with an impressive, built-in defiance about her, a certain pressure-resistant pro-active anti-authoritarian streak, and a short fuse. At 19, she takes on everything that’s stacked against her choice to go to war — her mother’s objections (and safety), her friends’ easy compliance with the status quo (“the front? the front of what?”), even the volunteer brigades who initially refused “a 19-year-old girl” on the grounds of both age and gender.
She’s not an easy person, as Nguyen’s performance, unafraid of harshness, amply conveys. “I never want to be you!” she says on the phone to her worried factory-worker mother (Lora Brovold, who has a late-play cameo). Then she hangs up on her, and refuses to respond to her messages.
Significantly, the only softness to Alina is a certain rapport with children, and the lingering childhood memory of a sun-dappled day in Independence Square in Kyiv.
Hers is a story full of adventures (all culled from real-life interviews), which unfold to a sound track of booms, explosions, and echoing thuds, the electronic pulse of tension, weird vibrations, a sheen of industrial buzz. The sound provided by Musani and Macri is an outstandingly dramatic participant in the storytelling. And the eerie glow, flashes, and shadows of Bahniuk’s stunning lighting design conjure a shattering world of terrors.
Alina poses as a journalist and is found out and arrested as a spy (“c’mon, I have 2,500 Twitter followers”). She jumps from the third floor of a burning building. Without either military or medical training, she’s suddenly a front-line medic, flailing in blood, struggling to find the vein and give a horribly wounded man an injection.
“Don’t worry,” says a fellow volunteer. “It’s not brain surgery. (Pause). Most of the time.” To the soundtrack is added the script’s repeating chorus of gruesome injuries – shrapnel wounds, concussions, collapsed lungs, frostbite, wounded bodies coded 300 for saveable, 200 for dead.
Between assignments when she returns to the civilian world, Alina doesn’t recognize her former life. It’s an aggressive chaos of grotesque noise, people drinking and talking about nothing in clubs, a disconnection conjured by the production. “I pass people just living, smoking, laughing, kissing. And they look through me like I don’t exist.” She’s furious one moment, and struck by the strangeness of tiny things — a cat, the sight of two old men in caps — the next.
She can’t get rid of the metallic taste of blood on the tip of her tongue. And eeriest of all, over and over, when she looks in the mirror she sees a death’s head. The image of Alina impaled between the V of two poles in a spotlight is a graphic theatricalization of PTSD and an overpowering sense of unreality. That this is all delivered by Nguyen in motion and in the present tense as it’s happening, a mode of storytelling fraught with the risk of artifice, is a startling (and aerobic) achievement in physical theatre.
Since Alina was written before the current deluge of Russian invasion atrocities in Ukraine, the frame and shape of the play have undoubtedly changed. And the ending of the play, infused with a certain hope for healing and the passionate belief that solidarity counts, has darkened considerably. What was hopeful is now heartbreaking.
“There is no future right now,” says Alina. “We’re in between…. We’re fighting for a future.” It’s never been more in doubt.
Read the 12thnight interview with the playwright here, including details about donating to Ukrainian humanitarian efforts.
Theatre: Pyretic Productions in association with Punctuate! Theatre
Written by: Lianna Makuch
Directed by: Patrick Lundeen
Starring: Christina Nguyen and Lora Brovold
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn
Running: through June 5