Review: A Slain Journalist’s Voice Resounds in ‘Intractable Woman’

Just the facts.

Here is a partial record of what one Russian journalist saw after a suicide bombing in Grozny, Chechnya, on a winter day in the early 21st century: burning vans, shredded clothes, car hoods, one human head, a radio, a leg, taxi meters, an arm, a hand, flags on their flagpoles, plastic bags, billboards, two dead dogs, bottles, puke, one child.

This catalog includes more than 50 items, each given the same, neutral weight by the woman reciting it. The sample I’ve chosen above skews toward sensationalism more than the list’s creator would have approved.

That’s the title character of “Intractable Woman: A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya,” a cool, carefully composed and frightening work by Stefano Massini, which opened on Sunday night at 122CC, Second Floor Theater in the East Village. Politkovskaya was a reporter for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta who, she said, never wrote “commentary, or opinion, or speculation.”

Yet her unvarnished accounts of the war in Chechnya antagonized many powerful people in the Russian military and government, who regarded her descriptions of acts of savagery committed by their country’s soldiers as “unpatriotic.” She was assassinated in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

Of course, the selection of details inevitably provides its own slanted commentary, as Politkovskaya well knew. This makes her an ideal subject for Mr. Massini, who subjects this intrepid journalist to the same sort of clinical scrutiny that she brought to her war reporting.

And somehow this steady accumulation of individual details, taken from Politkovskaya’s own writing and rearranged into subliminally hypnotic patterns, creates a vivid portrait of a woman as well as of her times. Mr. Massini understands the consciousness-altering power of repetition and hidden cadence, which is expertly captured by Paula Wing’s English translation.

Occasionally, the language slides into a fluid impressionism that summons the surreal nature of Politkovskaya’s world. That description of the detritus of the bombing in Grozny is framed by the softly spoken words “blood, snow, blood, snow, blood, snow.”

Easy empathy is not part of the program here. How could it be when Ms. Politkovskaya’s voice is divided by three? She is portrayed by Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub and Stacey Yen, who are dressed almost identically in dark pantsuits and pale shirts but are not physically interchangeable.

In level voices, inflected just enough to remind us that the speakers are human and capable of fear and anger, these actresses take turns in describing what Politkovskaya witnessed in Chechnya. That includes acts of violence and terrorism perpetrated by the Russian military, the Chechen government and native dissidents.

Sometimes the performers will assume the roles of Politkovskaya’s interview subjects or of the state officials (from both sides) who regularly interrogated her, with threats open and veiled, on her activities and sources. These other lives are rendered with understated physical tics.

No one, not even the military official who arranges a mock execution of Politkovskaya, comes across as a monstrous caricature. Nor when describing her own life, in the war zone or at home in Moscow, does this journalist strike extreme emotional notes or heroic poses, demanding our compassion or admiration.

Only naked words paint the pictures, which develop into images as horrifying as anything from Goya’s Disasters of War series. Marsha Ginsberg’s institutional set evokes a courtroom, a place for the presentation of evidence after the fact.

Its furnishings include an interrogation table with a microphone and about 20 chairs, which are periodically rearranged, though without any of the self-conscious cleverness associated with story theater. Changes in lighting (by Masha Tsimring) and in a barely perceptible, nagging soundscape (by Stowe Nelson) become deeply disturbing. When a door quietly opens by itself, it registers with the shock of an explosion.

Suppressing the performer’s natural urges to charm and to enlist sympathy can’t have been easy for the cast here. And it takes its members a while to achieve a confident rhythm.

Yet by the end, almost without your knowing it, they have given us a profound assessment of the toll taken by witnessing and chronicling what Politkovskaya saw. Look into the eyes of each of those self-contained faces, and you’ll see a full, agonizing scream waiting to erupt.

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