CAMBRIDGE — If there’s one thing that men in power can’t stand, it’s being made to look like a fool.
“Through the form of comedy, I’m trying to talk about serious things,” says the Ukrainian playwright Sasha Denisova, whose play, “The Gaaga,” gets its United States premiere in a two-week run at the former Beat Brew Hall in Harvard Square beginning Friday. “I’m using the grotesque to show these characters, because they’re ridiculous.”
“These characters” are a certain Vladimir Putin and his cronies in the Russian government, who have alarmed the world with their year-long reign of terror in the sovereign nation of Ukraine. “The Gaaga” imagines a young woman living in a bomb shelter, who dreams up a war-crimes tribunal that puts the Russian president on trial.
The piece was commissioned by the Arlekin Players Theatre, the Boston-based company created in 2009 for immigrant actors from the former Soviet Union. Arlekin founder Igor Golyak steered his company through a radical reinvention during the pandemic, creating the Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, an interactive approach that attracted attention around the globe. “The Gaaga” runs for 14 performances, the last eight of which will also be available to stream.
Beat Brew Hall closed during the pandemic. Through an arrangement brokered by the Harvard Square Business Association, Arlekin has temporarily taken over the underground location, transforming it into a hallucinatory bunker. Designer Irina Kruzhilina has built a barricade of chairs and bales of cardboard. Rocking horses, old furniture, and a clawfoot bathtub occupy the back room where the play takes place.
Denisova arrived in Boston about six weeks ago, having fled Moscow for Poland after the war began. She’s a revered playwright in Russia, a Golden Mask Award winner — the Russian equivalent of the Tonys — who studied at the Royal Court Theatre and graduated from the Moscow Art Theatre School.
“My hate towards the government right now doesn’t allow me to have any contact with those institutions,” she says, with some translation help from Kruzhilina.
Her elderly mother, with whom she is in contact every day, has refused to leave her home in Kyiv. Denisova’s next play, “My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion,” premieres in January at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.
With her dark eye shadow and severe bangs, Denisova resembles a Slavic Chrissie Hynde. One of the hardest things to get used to in America, she jokes, is the fact that everyone answers the banal question “How are you doing?” the same way: “Great!”
“Everyone is kind and happy,” she says. “I’m the only one who is grumpy.”
“She’s incredible, very different,” says Golyak. “She brings a style I really love and try to do in my work — a kind of fantastic realism.”
Golyak, a frequent nominee for Boston’s Elliot Norton Awards, arrived in Brookline as a Jewish refugee 20 years ago. His hybrid production of “The Orchard,” which starred Jessica Hecht and Mikhail Baryshnikov (as Anton Chekhov), was widely recognized as an ingenious theatrical response to the pandemic restrictions on social gathering.
Audiences who engage with the virtual version of “The Gaaga” will have options to create their own perspectives and to participate as jurors in Putin’s trial. According to producer Sara Stackhouse, Golyak and his team are experimenting with advanced technologies used in sports broadcasting and video gaming but have been previously untried in the theater.
“We’re trying to figure out what is a virtual production,” Golyak explains. “It means so many things and nothing at the same time. In terms of innovation, how do you navigate a two-dimensional screen from anywhere in the world, and make it different than Netflix?”
In addition to the Arlekin regulars among the cast of 18 for “The Gaaga,” Norton Award winners Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton have signed on, as has Actors’ Shakespeare Project founding member and former Gloucester Stage Company artistic director Robert Walsh. For Gottlieb and Pemberton, who have been active (along with the rest of the cast and crew) in providing aid for displaced Ukrainian families, the opportunity to help spread awareness about the war through art is deeply meaningful.
“I feel super passionate about this piece,” says Gottlieb during a break in rehearsal. “It’s a kind of protest, an artistic protest.”
“The Gaaga” incorporates elements of documentary theater, borrowing from the real-life words of Ukrainian children who have posted their despair online. Denisova’s bitter sense of humor, notes Gottlieb, is part of a long tradition: “I mean, Chaplin did it with Hitler.
“If you feel something through art, you feel more connected. And there’s a greater chance, through the heart, that you’ll do something.”
Beyond the humanitarian ramifications, Gottlieb has another reason for her enthusiasm about “The Gaaga.” Its overt references to the psychoactive aspects of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” harken back to the first role she ever took on, when she played Alice in a school production as a 9-year-old.
“The Putin posse in this play is a Mad Hatter’s tea party,” she hints with a smile.
The lead character of The Girl is played by Taisiia “Taya” Fedorenko, a tall 17-year-old from Kyiv who has been staying in Connecticut since the beginning of the war. In the fall she will begin her college life at the New School in Manhattan, “near the Ukrainian Village,” as she points out.
She’s a big fan of Tim Burton’s 2010 film version of “Alice in Wonderland,” which starred Mia Wasikowska as Alice. After her audition, Denisova told her she got the part “because you look like her.”
The outpouring of support for Ukraine in America initially took the young refugee by surprise, she admits: “I didn’t expect people to care.”
Golyak says he has heard Denisova say she will never go back to Russia. Like her, he has older family members who were unable to or didn’t want to leave their Ukrainian homeland. Others have fled to Germany and Poland.
“It’s a medieval practice to make fun of your enemy,” he says. “It’s almost the best way to get back at them.”
In America, he says, “the news gets here, but it doesn’t feel as present as it does in Europe. There, it’s a clear and present danger.”
For the next few weeks, an abandoned restaurant in Harvard Square will provide a refuge.
At Beat Brew Hall, 13 Brattle St., Cambridge. June 2-18. Tickets $37-$56. Streaming performance available June 8-18. Tickets $28. Presented by Arlekin Players Theatre. www.arlekinplayers.com