Like most people who hear the words “Pussy Riot musical,” I arrived at the Regency Ballroom on Friday night not quite knowing what to expect. But lack of clarity about what we were about to witness didn’t seem to temper enthusiasm: A crowd of visibly excited people, mostly women — some of whom were wearing their pink hats from the Women’s March — piled into the third-floor lounge on March 10 for Revolution, a new multimedia musical theater piece based on the forthcoming memoir of Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina.

It marked another chapter for the activist/music collective, who first arrived in mainstream consciousness in 2012 after staging an anti-Putin protest at a Moscow cathedral. When members Maria Alyokhina and her bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova received two-year sentences for a protest that lasted only 40 seconds, their plight as political prisoners made international headlines.

But for progressive Russian immigrants like myself, Pussy Riot became beacons of possibility. Authoritarianism has been ubiquitous in our home country for so long, most people don’t see the point of fighting. Centuries of political oppression have rendered Russian people cynical to the point of nihilism. The fact that a group of young women put themselves at risk to speak out in such a dramatic way was nothing short of revolutionary.

After their arrest, Pussy Riot came to be regarded as symbols of resistance abroad. Their brash feminism resonated with American audiences who were already primed on several decades of women’s liberation movements. Meanwhile, in Russia, their views were seen as fringe.

But interesting things happened when Pussy Riot was released in 2013: Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina became activist-celebrities and seemed to enjoy their newfound fame. When they appeared on an episode of House of Cards, where they criticized a fictional version of Putin at a dinner in Frank Underwood’s White House, some of my young, feminist Russian-American friends accused them of being too Hollywood. “Hadn’t they just served two years in a penal colony?” I thought. “If they want to have some fun now, we should let them live.”

Still, something seemed to be lost in translation in Pussy Riot’s attempts to cross over into mainstream America. In 2016, Tolokonnikova released two English-language singles as Pussy Riot, seemingly without the other group members’ involvement: “Make America Great Again” was an anti-Trump song set to an awkward combination of folk guitar and trap drums. And “Straight Outta Vagina,” a play on NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton,” presented itself as a radical, feminist statement. But with lyrics like Does your vagina have a brand?/Let your vagina start a band, it came off as nonsensical at best and equating women with their genitals at worst.

Alyokhina’s Revolution, which moved onto L.A. after one night in San Francisco on this national tour, taps into Pussy Riot’s legacy of avant-garde performance art in a much more authentic way.

Alyokhina took the stage with three collaborators: Nastia and Max (who go only by their first names) of “junk-punk” duo Asian Women on the Telephone, as well as actor Kiryl Masheka. Alyokhina and Masheka narrated, in Russian, the tale of Pussy Riot’s now famous 2012 “Punk Prayer” protest and subsequent incarceration in a remote, Siberian penal colony. A video projection with footage of the protest, courtroom drawings, and images from the penal colony played in the background, along with English subtitles to translate the dialogue on stage. Meanwhile, Nastia and Max played a live noise-punk soundtrack with drums, saxophone, and electronics.

It’s worth noting that director Yury Muravitsky wasn’t in attendance because, said Alyokhina, he was denied a travel visa into the United States. The reasons for the denial are unclear, but with the work’s subversive content — and the parallels between its critiques of Putin and anti-Trump rhetoric, along with the current debate over Trump’s travel ban — that news was enough to cause murmurs in the audience.

The performance was scrappy, but the DIY feel gave it plenty of charm. The actors actually had to restart the show after a few minutes because they had discovered that the subtitles weren’t showing up. But the audience only cheered louder the second time they declared “What about the revolution?” in the prologue. It’s also worth remembering, of course, Pussy Riot started out as a loose, informal collective of liberal arts students who staged guerrilla actions in public places and put videos of them on YouTube.

'Revolution': Nastia from Asian Women on the Telephone, left, and Maria Alyokhina.
‘Revolution’: Nastia from Asian Women on the Telephone, left, and Maria Alyokhina. (Glen Casebeer)

Revolution was also a bit of a sensory overload, between Alyokhina’s motor-mouth monologues, the footage, and the experimental soundtrack vying for the viewers’ attention at once. She and the other actor would often break into song: he danced around like the frontman of a punk band as she recited her lines with an intense rigidity befitting her interpretations of Russian legal jargon and political rhetoric. The jumble of stimuli on stage created a Kafka-esque sense of confusion that conveyed, on an emotional level, the counterintuitive belief systems and Orwellian double-think required to sustain an authoritarian state.

A particularly emotive moment came as Alyokhina described being driven to the remote Siberian penal colony in an autozak (a Russian vehicle whose name is literally an acronym for “automobile for transporting the incarcerated”). “Next time you’re passing an autozak on the freeway, look closely. You might notice the eyes of an incarcerated person looking at you,” she said in Russian.

Maria Alyokhina, after her release from prison on Monday in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.
Maria Alyokhina, after her release from prison on Monday in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. (Sergei Karpukhin via NPR)

In the years since Pussy Riot’s infamous arrest, Putin’s approval ratings have grown to 83 percent. There was a resistance movement, the so-called Snow Revolution of 2011, but over time, people grew complacent. Russia doesn’t have a viable opposition party; Putin’s outspoken critics, such as the former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, mysteriously wind up dead; and public protests require permits from the state. Needless to say, it should be extremely alarming that the extent of Russia’s ties to the Trump administration are not yet known.

Alyokhina’s ultimate goal is to bring Revolution to Russia — yes, her theater production, but also an actual revolution. Despite the traumatizing experiences she’s been through, she’s still fighting. That’s a powerful lesson for her American audience: that the fight for freedom is a slow, messy one; that one Women’s March isn’t enough to challenge the authoritarianism creeping into American politics; and that even though it’s hard, one needs to keep resisting.

Or, as Alyokhina said during the Q&A portion of the event: “The most dangerous prison is that which you can build inside your head.”

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