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Tim J. Lord, the playwright behind We declare you a terrorist …, now playing at Round House Theatre, could not have anticipated the political context and baggage around the show’s world premiere. It’s a fictionalized account of the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis, during which Chechen terrorists took control of a theater until Russian authorities pumped the space full of gas. The play’s protagonist is from Ukraine, and characters debate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence on the country, halfway through his first official term. The current war in Ukraine adds some sting to the dialogue, but even without the war, this would be a tough political drama that raises important questions about how different people find purpose in violent struggle.
Co-directors Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi, along with scenic designer Lawrence Moten, start with a deceptively simple space. It is an anonymous room with beaten up furniture—one character describes it as a kind of purgatory. It’s a year after the hostage crisis and the action begins with an interrogation. An FSB officer (Elliott Bales) pulls a black hood off another man (Cody Nickell) with bound wrists, and starts asking questions. Before anyone can speak, sounds of someone being tortured happen offstage.
The FSB officer uses the frightening sounds and disorientation to his advantage: He is off-putting, almost jovial (none of the actors speak in Russian accents, which is the right choice). You may know that the FSB is modern Russia’s successor to the KGB, so this officer is familiar with interrogation tactics. It turns out his prisoner wrote the play that was being performed when hostages were taken, and after surviving, the playwright was caught trying to enter Chechnya. We eventually learn why, but not just through the officer’s questions. In flashbacks to the hostage crisis, the playwright converses with a Russian teenager, Masha (Bekah Zornosa), and Kayira (Ava Eisenson), a Chechen terrorist. Both admonish the playwright and serve as his conscience.
The major flourish in We declare you a terrorist involves the nature of the flashbacks. Zornosa and Eisenson do not physically appear on stage. Instead, we see video projections of them on the walls, while Nickell reacts to them in real time. It is an eerie effect, and has a purpose beyond delineating flashbacks from the present. The images of Zornosa and Eisenson are literally larger than life, projected to roughly the size of a movie screen, so their expressive faces only need small changes in order to communicate a great deal. Russian brutality shapes how their characters think, albeit in opposite ways, and the tensest scenes are an extended argument over Kayira’s tactics. She may have a gun and a bomb strapped to her, but the hostage crisis has plenty of downtime, which gives them ample time to pore over the efficacy of terrorism.
If the flashbacks are about the Russian state’s influence over its people, the interrogation scenes are an extension of the government’s will. The dynamics between the playwright and FSB officer are similar to Taking Sides, a 1995 play set in World War II’s aftermath where an American soldier tries to decide whether a German conductor has Nazi sympathies. Both plays conclude that the answers are nowhere near as simple as the interrogator wishes, and the mere act of detaining an artist curdles any possibility that someone such as a conductor or a playwright might remain a friend of the homeland. Bales’ physically commanding performance is all about needling Nickell’s character, and they are effective sparring partners. (Bales flubbed some lines at the production City Paper attended, but he effectively improvised his way through them.) Their dialogue turns into an intellectual battle of wills, another smart choice since onstage depiction of violence and torture would get in the way of Lord’s deeper themes. The officer has his reasons for joining the FSB, just like Masha and Kayira, to the point that every character, including the playwright, become an avatar for one possible path toward unhappiness and despair under the Putin regime.
Lord declines to name Nickell’s playwright character, although a simple Wikipedia search reveals him to be Georgi Vasilyev. By keeping his name semi-anonymous, Lord can take more liberties with the character’s choices and conduct. Absent any strong connection to Vasilyev, Nickell has the freedom to tackle a tricky role, one where the playwright empathizes with three people who hate him for wildly different reasons. His use of understatement is consistently effective, conveying subtle shifts between terror and curiosity, and more importantly, it is dramatically plausible that the other three characters feel comfortable confiding in him. The playwright’s tools are modest: he knows how to ask questions, and has a sense of humor. He may be lucky insofar that Masha and Kayira have opinions about art, although the play also suggests these shared interests, not politics, are where common ground can exist.
Because of its setting and the play is a world premiere, I was curious how We declare you a terrorist… would involve the audience. In an earlier draft, perhaps Lord imagined some kind of interactive theater, with a terrorist character shouting directly at the audience. That tactic would be immediately shocking, then lose its power. Ultimately, Lord does make use of a theater full of attentive listeners. At a crucial moment, the lights turn up and Nickell addresses the audience, his voice full of solemnity and regret. The implication is that we are the dead from the 2002 crisis, a powerful gambit that breaks down several barriers. If the original intent was to disabuse us from thinking about terrorism and totalitarianism in abstract terms, then a secondary, more immediate effect is how this play changes the way we think about the war in Ukraine—and why both sides fight.
We declare you a terrorist…, by Tim J. Lord and co-directed by Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi, runs at Round House Theatre until May 8.