After the Second World War, five women in a grim, Soviet gulag sentenced to years of toil and hunger, struggle to survive the bleak winters, while suffering the humiliating attention of the guards. Arthur M. Jolly’s A Gulag Mouse, now in production at Sacred Fools Theater Company, is no voyeuristic, sexist, women-in-chains titillation. No, rather, it is a gripping eighty minutes of tense conflict spiked with violent outbreaks among women whose only goal is survival.
Lubov (Heather L. Tyler), a woman of beauty, has sex with a guard in return for extra food and a warmer place to sleep in the crude dwelling the women occupy. She shares some of the food with her roommates. Prushka (Dana DeRuyck), called Mouse for her shy and hesitant ways, is victimized by Masha (Kimberly Atkinson), a short-fused, brutal woman seething with anger. Masha, with her quick temper and intimidating manner, fancies herself the boss and despises Lubov for her looks and privileges. And Svetlana (Crystal Keith) stands apart, neutral, but strong. Masha doesn’t mess with her.
Into this wretched, emotional stew enters a new inmate, Anastasia (Emily Goss). Luminously beautiful, with blonde hair and soft hands, she has been sentenced to the gulag for murdering her husband Evgeny (Brandon Bales). The decorated war hero, after a passionate kiss, restarts the abuse he delivered five years before laying hands on her, choking her, accusing her of infidelity and promising more to come. In a blaze of defensive fury, Anastasia plunges a knife into him, taunting him with the news of a five-year-old son he will never see. She may look delicate, but she has power.
There are many outbreaks of physical violence in A Gulag Mouse, mostly initiated by big, strong Masha. The close confines of Sacred Fools new space, the Black Box, make this rough-and-tumble action thrilling. At some point all the women fight. They fight with fists and feet, with knife and stick, choking and stomping each other and the audience has a closer-than-ringside seat.
In addition to the physical conflict, there is psychological brutality. When shy Prushka attempts to tell an anecdote, Masha interrupts over and over again. At first amusing, Masha’s cruelty becomes repellent.
After the climax of the play, the script takes an unexpected dénoument, a psychological turn that either explains the previous action of the play or negates it. It is puzzling and is certain to spark lively post-show discussions as the audience leaves the theatre and heads for their next stop of the evening.
This takes nothing away from the achievement of the performers who were excellent. Combat choreography by Mike Mahaffey (assisted by Lacy Altwine and Fight Captain Celina Sumiak), although necessarily stylized, is performed flat out with aggressive vigor. The intensity of the emotions and the physicality of the playing made this audience member lean forward toward the action.
The staging of A Gulag Mouse employs the tennis-court configuration with the audience on opposite sides maximizing the playing space. The set by Aaron Francis (with lighting by Matthew Richter and Adam Earle) with its rough-hewn, clapboard walls and slapped-together bunks, calls to mind those of a German concentration camp. Costumes by Linda Muggeridge are ideal, evoking the period and circumstances of the play. The sound design by Matthew Richter adds much to the tension of the piece. Vigorous, hyper-masculine preshow singing by what I guess to be the Red Army Chorus accompanied by an underlayment of metal percussion is enough to set one’s teeth on edge. And later, the rumbling sound of a train coming into a station seems to shake and vibrate through the building. Impressive! I loved it.
Smartly directed by Danielle Ozymandias, A Gulag Mouse is thought-provoking in concept and gripping in performance. It runs through May 21 at Sacred Fools Theater Company, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles.