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Still Just a Rat in a Cage: "A Gulag Mouse" by Tosspot Productions


In ironclad Russia, around the time of the second World War, Joseph Stalin rose to power. His heavy-handed ideologies would shape Russia and usher in the Cold War. The rise of his repressive brand of socialism included the use of prisons to cull the masses. From about 1930 to 1960, tens of millions of Russian citizens and dissidents were incarcerated in forced-labor camps known as the Gulag. A significant portion of them did not survive. It is estimated that well over a million souls were sickened, beat or worked to death in the labor camps that raised an iron curtain. Those who survived could spend years in these maddening, isolated prisons. For them, survival often meant keeping quiet and unassuming; mice raging breathlessly just to mete out a daily existence.
During our last gasps of a long winter, Anchorage has been afforded a view into this archipelago that once dotted the Siberian landscape. Arthur Jolly’s “A Gulag Mouse,” is presented by Tosspot Productions and Out North Contemporary Art House.
Director Arlitia Jones entraps us in a Gulag bunkhouse for a stunning performance of this two act play. With just a handful of cast and a convincing set of wood and barbed wire we are transported to this remote place that Masha, Svetlana, Lubov, Prushka and Anastasia call… shelter, because it is so far away from anything one could call home.
We are deposited in this labor camp by tinny motherland music and the whuffing of a train. The cast dutifully provides an array of characters, each exemplifying the tattered bits of humanity that are left behind once dignity and love are removed.
Annia Wyndham’s portrayal of Masha, is sufficiently mean and bestial. I’m sure she is a lovely woman in real life, but I found myself disgusted by her vitriol and angered by her bully antics. She played well an embittered shrew who none would root for, but most would pity. We recognize in her every bully who uses their sadism to mask something in themselves they hate or fear.
Tamar Shai, as Svetlana, subtly masters the stage. A slender block of apathy, she abides in the coldest corner of the bunkhouse. Her persona inhabiting the abyss where heart and care should live but does no longer. Her face slack, devoid of the light that makes us human. Her only excuse for living is the basest instinct of hunger and breathing. She partakes no joy and feels no sorrow in the moments between.
The pitiable Lubov (Morgan Mitchell) seems a character built intentionally to lack depth. Lubov is as much a prop as person. Her body is a bartered item with but one use. When this purpose is threatened by an outsider, we see her emerge as a hissing cat in this mouse hole.
And on to our dear little caged mice. Anastasia (Jill Sowerine) is the stubborn heroine whose violent act has imprisoned us in this place. I don’t know why her late husband called her a mouse, except maybe that she is like one caught in a trap. One who would fight her predicament, chewing off her own own limb for release. Her opposite, sweet Prushka, is drawn carefully by Danielle Rabinovitch as first a placid, timid creature. Shivering and stuttering, she is damned to this place for so long. She is strengthened by the addition of another mouse in their nest and finds her once guarded voice with a joke. Just a joke…
The audience shares a few uneasy laughs along with the women when catty jabs are made. Their spiteful claws are sharp and unkind. Laughing feels a little dirty. In the tight quarters of the Out North Theater, the physical proximity of the action places you in the barracks. One nearly wants to assist in moments of desperation and fury.
The story grows, the tension rises and you simultaneously root for these women, and hope for their mercy. Ashamed to imagine what that mercy might be.
I found tears coursing down my cheeks, weeping for these once strong souls whose abuse and neglect created of them desperate, caged animals. Dredging up parts of ourselves we would pretend don’t exist, “A Gulag Mouse” is a sharp, cold reminder that humanity is a fleeting perspective. It is not so difficult to lose our sense of self in such a hopeless situation. We are all but a few missteps, and a stark, isolated cabin away from answering the call of the north wind and a lonesome insanity.
A Gulag Mouse plays now through April 7th at Out North Contemporary Art House. http://www.outnorth.org/

[Courtesy: Jon Lang]