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ACT presents Ilkholm Theatre Company
ACT presents Ilkholm Theatre Company
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Visiting our fair city for the next few weeks is an important international theater company from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The Ilkholm Theatre Company is bringing 31 of its company members to ACT Theatre to present two plays from their repertoire.

The Ilkholm was founded in 1976 by director Mark Weil. Young Russian and Uzbek playwrights debuted at the Ilkholm and were later called the new-wave playwrights. The content of the plays has never been what would be considered "safe," especially during turbulent political upheaval. In addition to provocative new plays, they use themes and translations of some very "Western" playwrights, such as Edward Albee's plays Three Tall Women and The Zoo Story. Hamlet and Others is based on fragments from plays by Shakespeare.

Mark Weil began traveling to the US in the 1980s and encouraged his wife and daughters to relocate to Seattle. So, he made the trip between Tashkent and Seattle a few times a year. He taught at the University of Washington and impressed many people here with his theatrical style and know-how. Planning for this visit began three years ago, after Kurt Beattie, Artistic Director of ACT, went to Tashkent to visit the company.

Mark Weil was tragically and mysteriously attacked and killed last year after a night of rehearsing. The company has struggled to overcome the emotions of this tragedy and continue to produce shows that he wrote and directed.

White White Black Stork (March 14-April 6) features a Sufi Muslim boy and girl born in the old city of Tashkent, both young people who do not observe the social conventions of their Sufi community. The boy falls in love with another boy, but submits to an arranged marriage to the girl. The girl also loves another boy. Their wedding leads, in a Romeo and Juliet style, to despair, family quarrels and untimely tragedy.

Ecstasy with the Pomegranate (April 9-13) recreates a story of the forgotten dance - called Bacha dance - that has completely disappeared from the culture of Central Asia. This dance was performed exclusively by young men called "Bachas" (boy dancers). In Central Asia, the growing popularity of Islam led to forbidding women to express themselves through any kind of art performed in public. This play however, is not a documentary of this period in history, but a fictional story based around the life of a real-life Russian painter, Aleksandr Nikolaev, who fell in love with this new land, learned to speak Uzbek, converted to Islam and took a new name, Usto Mumin (The Quiet Master). One of the earliest artistic themes explored by Usto was the youth and the art of the young Bacha boys and their graceful dance. This play is the first time where presenting the work and the paintings of Usto Mumin, through theater and dance, has been attempted.

I talked with Kurt Beattie about why he chose these particular pieces to come to Seattle. He explains, "I think it's because Mark Weil was most interested and passionate about these two plays. They are somewhat newer to the repertoire. Ecstasy is quite new.

He felt that this represented an important part of the company's repertoire. Ilkholm has always been interested in probing, examining social issues. They do a wide variety of work from pure entertainment and light pieces to very contemporary conceptualizations and plays that are about current life. Of course, Uzbekistan is predominately Muslim and it's a theater that is very much in the heartbeat of the intellectual life of the country.

Thinking about the relationship of Islamic culture to the history of Uzbek is obviously an incredibly important thing. And it's of interest to us because it's an examination of these cultures of the Silk Road, the old trade route between China and the Middle East that was a point of great culture transfer important in world history, and an area greatly fought over, of great culture achievement and terrible butchery. It's also geo-politically important because it's an area where the Central Asian republics of the old Soviet Union all figure heavily in natural resources, particularly oil.

"Our country has encountered great difficulties with parts of the Islamic world and it behooves us to experience and know as much as we can of this incredibly diverse and widely spread culture as we can. This is one of the overall reasons for bringing this wonderful company here. These pieces represent contradictions in Islamic culture, but also the contradictions in Western culture as well. They translate easily and readily to our own cultural history. That combined with the exceptional work of the company, the excellence of the actors, the versatility of the company and the lyricism of the work itself will make it a 'must see' for Seattle audiences."

I asked Beattie if there is significance to his opening the ACT 2008-9 season with these shows. He does think, "it's a statement & about the fact that ACT seeks to reflect the broader international view and I hope - finances willing - we'll be able to present more international work in years to come. Why? Because there's a big world out there of exceptional theater and productions that can fertilize our already fine theater community with new ideas and can give audiences a different experiences. There's a depth of investigation the texts which a lot of American companies can't afford, which happens over weeks and months, and an element of 'finish' in the best productions that often eludes American theater. These plays are played in repertory and refined over time and stay in the repertory so they don't disappear after one season. Actors get to know the play in a way that is hard for actors to get to know a play in this country."

Planning started well before Mark Weil was killed. Beattie reacts to the news of his friend being killed. "It was a terrible blow. This guy is a brilliant director and a source of tremendous energy and imagination who generates movement in a community. Always renewing himself with new ideas and challenges and had a tremendous interest in a broad range of stories and literatures. Quite an inspiring guy and in person a very generous human fellow. He was demanding as a director and I'm sure actors could have interesting stories to tell about him in the rehearsal room, but he was extraordinarily successful in bringing stories to life. I was so impressed when I went to Tashkent three years ago and saw the many excellent productions - all of them Mark's, by the way."

We talked about the fact that both of these plays have homosexual content. Beattie gives some context to the themes in the plays. "I think both these productions are brilliant examinations of the place of Gay people in a larger culture which is uneasy with Gay life in its midst. That's more true of White White Black Stork, which is about a conventionally arranged Muslim marriage in which the young man is Gay, and the inability of the culture to make sense of this. The second play is about a fascinating dance tradition indigenous to Uzbek, it's only indigenous tradition. It's like the Elizabethan theater with boys playing women's role. It's in response to traditional culture's tradition which was destroyed by the Soviets."

So, I wonder if the plays are meant to be tragic as a negative statement about homosexuality? Beattie corrects me. "It's not prejudicial, these plays don't say that it's bad to be Gay, they don't marginalize Gay people in the context of these plays by implying that they sick or hopelessly neurotic or doomed souls. What they do is describe historically their reflection of what happened at the beginning of the 20th century, how an uberculture has trouble dealing with the fact of homosexuality or the ways it grows responses to the presence of Gay people in its midst."

"I think these plays simply point up in a historical context the complicated relationship that Uzbek Islamic culture has with the fact of Gay life. In the end, I think they're about wanting society to be inclusive about homosexuality. I think they want to promote a wisdom about the uberculture's response to Gay life by describing a couple of very different situations in a traditional culture in which Gay life is the center of the story."

I had an opportunity to speak with Maxim Tumnenev, who is, apparently, one of the only people in the company who speaks English and works with the company administratively. I followed up with him about the situation in Tashkent for homosexuals and what kinds of repression might be found there. Tumnenev is himself Gay and proud to let anyone know it.

He says, "I can openly speak about that. I am open to everyone that I am Gay and my parents know, my friends know, and I'm OK with that. Unfortunately, at the moment, I have no partner." (Take heed, men. You might want to check him out while he's here.)

I asked about the legal status in Tashkent. Tumnenev explains, "Actually you can be known as homosexual. [But] there is still a ridiculous law that forbids sex between two male partners. No one will be put in jail if you're living with a man, but if you will be caught in the actual sexual situation, you can be blackmailed. In terms of society which is different and controversial, you can't kiss standing on the street, but there are some brave guys who do that. Good for them."

Tumnenev points out an oddity about the Uzbek law. "There are just three lines in the homosexual law; it doesn't prohibit sex between two women, only between men. There is gender discrimination. Everyone knows that and speaks about it, and they [the government] know people speak about it."

I asked about developing the plays with Gay themes and what we should understand about their meaning. Tumnenev talks about what he thinks Mark Weil meant to say. "We were not focusing on developing the homosexual story itself, but it happened that it existed in the story. We brought the young high schoolers in to see the show and have a discussion. There were many different topics in the discussion, and one was about homosexuality. As soon as we tried to discuss that, the young people started to discuss forced marriage. We were trying to pull them toward talking about the homosexual issues. They are always looking to avoid this theme. Even when Mark said, 'Let's talk about the relationship of the boy and boy in the show,' the teens said, 'No, we want to talk about how forced marriage is going on today.' Society still doesn't want to talk about it."

Tumnenev explains his feeling that in any great drama that there is content that people don't want to talk about. "There is not any special focus of 'let's do a show about homosexualism.' What Mark wanted to show is that a person has a freedom of choice, can love whoever he or she wants, and the person cannot be oppressed by society or traditions, and can overcome them. It's mostly about freedom, than any specific theme.

"Who has rights to limit a person's choice? It can be political or whatever. Mark always focused on doing the piece of art and showing different sides of a person/character presented in this piece of art. I don't know if Mark wanted to emphasize a special issue. He just was more concentrated on showing the person's life and how fragile life is and especially the life of an artist in society. The life of the person who is thinking in another way that society is not used to think in."

I asked about the future of the company, now that their "leader" is gone. Tumnenev described several directors who are coming from St. Petersburg and Moscow; one who will help with the school of drama and one who will direct the main fall production. Anton Pakhomov, who can be considered the Associate Artistic Director of the company, will be coming to Seattle for Ecstasy. So, while they don't have all the puzzle pieces assembled, they know they will continue into the future, and will continue Weil's tradition of pushing forward to produce theater, no matter what.

For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.

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