3 stars out of 4
Between 1932 and 1933, in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, millions (estimates range widely between 3 million and 10 million) of Ukrainians died in a manmade famine created by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. The famine became known as Holodomor, death by hunger. Abby Fenbert’s 2015 play, Sickle, receiving its World Premiere at Red Theater, memorializes the event through the lives of four women who are among the remaining survivors of a village that has fallen victim to the disastrous Soviet collectivization that has led to starvation and the deportation of all its male residents to Siberia. Trying to put a positive spin on the decimation is a young Komsomol (Soviet Youth Brigade) officer who arrives to support the head of the Kolkhosp, the collective farm that is now headquartered in the repurposed church that serves as the setting for much of the grim fight for survival. As the play makes clear, a famine, once underway, doesn’t discriminate based on politics.
There is some gallows humor in Fenbert’s script, which might provide a brief respite for an audience from the relentless bleakness of the situation, but director Elizabeth Lovelady keeps the focus on the gallows. Be warned, this choice makes for difficult viewing, but it also honors the experiences of the victims of this now almost-forgotten genocide. The famine is kept at the forefront in the performances of the five-person cast, and hunger is a constant backdrop to the shifting allegiances, gnawing resentments and philosophical differences. The spare set by Jessie Howe sometimes is so stark as to make it difficult to identify the setting—the absence of religious icons is so complete that this cultural annihilation is easy to forget—but it does mirror the new “normal” of characters who are no longer alive, but not yet dead. Costume designer Hailey Rakowiecki captures the pasts and presents of the women, who, in the absence of men, have become both breadwinners and militia, though the latter role still fits them poorly, except for newcomer Nadya, who “walks like the city” and wears the polished uniform of Komsomol—until circumstances change. Sound designer Sarah D. Espinoza sets the scene with music reminiscent of the region (strains of the Moldau and folk music), the crying of the baby who is the last man left in the village, the bells and ambient sounds of the Kolkhosp. Jason Lynch’s lighting design alternates between naturalistic and expressionistic tableau that puts the characters in sharp relief and helps reinforce the dark tone of the production.
Sickle tries to cram a lot of history in as it explores the sacrifices needed to survive. The introduction of the young, idealistic Komsomol officer, and the evolution of her character into hard pragmatism, shows the transition of the Soviet ideal (preserved in Soviet propaganda) to the realities of life under Stalin’s dictatorship. The missing men represent the rural life of Ukraine, where 80 percent of the population relied on privately owned farms for their food and livelihood before Soviet collectivization led to state control of farmland and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of landowners as Kulaks, class traitors. There are references to the Black Boards that condemned collective farms unable to meet ever more unreasonable grain quotas, the execution of peasants for “stealing” grain and other crops harvested from land they no longer owned, and the cannibalism that became more common as food supplies dwindled. Even the characters in the play joke about who among them would make the heartiest meal. The historical details can be hard to follow at times, but the choices that the women in the story face are not. The stakes are life and death, and this fact is never lost. Leading the women (whether as the Tsar or Stalin is a matter of debate) is Anna, played with steely determination and compassion by Moira Begale. Anna has implemented her own socialism, doling out rations according to need and placating her followers with distractions that prevent them from turning on each other, though this often causes them to turn on her or make demands she cannot meet. Her subjects include “General” Iryna, a young mother given to ranting, who nevertheless is loyal to the point of murder and devoted to the survival of her son and her sisters—the other women of the village. Christine Vrem-Ydstie captures both the ferocity and the vulnerability of her character in equally frightening measure. Catherine Dvorak and Brittany Ellis round out the village women. Dvorak lends a clear-eyed hardness to Halka, a survivor who understands better than anyone how to make sure she and her remaining family members can remain alive. Ellis, as Yasia, hides her fear and loneliness behind the darkest of dark humor and ever-darker versions of self-composed folk songs, as well as drowning her increasing pain in alcohol. As the bright-eyed, city-bred Youth Brigade leader Nadya, Katherine Bourne captures the idealism of her character when she enters—one genuinely believes she believes she is there to help, if only the women she encounters could stop their self-destructive Kulak behavior. This idealism is soon undermined by her growing connection to those she was sent to reform—as an outsider, she sees clearly the desperate calculations Anna has done to maximize survival rates, and welcomes the sisterhood offered by Iryna. However, there is no arithmetic that can change the odds for any of the characters, whose fates are sealed in the first scene, or even before. Bourne’s transformation as Nadya fights for her own survival is horrifying and predictable.
By focusing on a small community of survivors and the sacrifices they must make, Abbey Fenbert’s Sickle brings to life the victims of the Holodomor, one of the first genocides that resulted from disastrous 20th Century Communist policies of collectivization, less than a decade after Stalin came to power. It highlights the hubris of the state that continued to hail a “high standard of living” and “great strides toward a wonderful life” while millions starved as a direct result of foolhardy agrarian policies and power-hungry politics. Unfortunately, no one learned from this history because it was suppressed and ignored, and it was doomed to be repeated several times over with the same result. Fenbert’s play can be a little dense in historical detail, but the story she tells is powerful and important, and its impact is well-realized under Elizabeth Lovelady’s unsparing direction. The fierce, sometimes feral, performances of the five women in the ensemble, with Christine Vrem-Ydstie’s stricken mother and Moira Begale’s desperate leader at their center, propel the bleak narrative to its inevitable conclusion with tense, deliberate inexorability, as the titular sickle is shown to be a double-edged sword and hope a scarce commodity.
Sickle, produced by Red Theater at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Avenue, Chicago, runs through July 29. Performances begin Friday, July 6, and take place Thursday – Saturday at 8:00, and Sundays at 4:00. Visit Red Theater at https://redtheater.org for tickets, additional production information and dates of special captioned performances and touch tours. Additional information also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Photo courtesy Red Theater: Christine Vrem-Ydstie (with baby designed by Makena Levine)
Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.