The State Vs. Natasha Banina is a Mesmerizing Triumph of Creativity Over Pandemic (4.5 stars)

During the Battle of Britain, bombs rained down upon London and yet Winston Churchill famously kept the symphony open. But bombs aren’t contagious, and today our concerts, movies, live show and crowded events are gone, swept away in the political storms of a pandemic.

Luckily for modern audiences, ArtsEmerson and Arlekin Players Theatre have turned lemons into lemonade. The technology has advanced to the point where audiences and performers can transcend the confines of four walls and create a theatre experience outside and inside our homes simultaneously.

They not only host their new one-woman show, The State Vs. Natasha Banina, on Zoom, a video calling service, they incorporate video calling into the drama. So that it’s not just the actors but the characters in the play and also the audience who are on Zoom as part of the story. Originally called Natasha’s Dream, the concept was created by Igor Golyak, who adapted the play into this interactive online experience.

The production not only uses video chat as a channel, but harnesses its advantages as well. You’re encouraged to introduce yourself before the show, and you then begin the by show by taking a survey about your life, your attitude towards orphans, and your dreams. You are being vetted for jury duty, but perhaps also it is intended to make you think you are similar to the character you are about to watch.

Then there is a brief introduction stating that due to the pandemic, the audience will serve as jurors in a trial by watching the defendant on what appears to be security camera footage from a bare room. You get the feeling that the person is in a mental ward due to the nondescript room she begins the show in, however, that is a mere inference since her location is unknown. The sets are minimal, but that seems to be a strong choice, not for lack of effort. It is just one woman, in white clothes, in a bare room, with little to call the eyes to attention.

Then we begin to see the story as told by Natasha, a Russian orphan on trial for manslaughter. Delightfully, the production uses special video effects. At times the video is black and white and will occasionally pop into color. They added live video distortion effects, to emphasize the emotions that carry the character. There are surreal touches, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, as graphics are overlaid onto the video to accent various portions of the story. Natasha draws on the walls of her cell during the show, and these drawings and her actions even interact with the graphics being overlaid! The conclusion one draws is that the video distortion reflects the madness of the character. You start to question her sanity, yet you may also start to question your own.

Because its sole character is insane, the play meanders and even repeats itself, in a way that sometimes that seems wasteful. Although the journey is confusing, as you try to make sense from the chaotic story, the play is only an hour long, so it is not taxing to watch. When the play ends, you are asked over the video call to vote guilty or not guilty, and then the results are displayed before the audience.

The performance of the main actress Darya Denisova, must be commended. At times she seems like a dreamy eyed teen lost in infatuation. And at others, she descends into a monster, reminding us of Aileen Wuornos. Her range of emotions is stunning and her ability to take the audience on a journey is the true gem of the production. The play was performed in English, and also in Russian with English subtitles.

Those of us with a deep love of theatre miss live performances, as also the performers miss the energy of a live crowd. The State Vs. Natasha Banina aims to re-establish that connection, and shows the creative path to not only surviving but overcoming the limitations of the current pandemic. It does a great job of creating an experience that may just become a staple of new forms of entertainment. 4.5 stars.

See State vs. Natasha Banina online.