“But if she could talk, she would tell you… what? That the skin can grow so tough that nothing penetrates- not the groping of men’s hands or the cutting of their whips? Or that there are places men cannot touch- places where you can remain inviolate, so deep inside, behind fences and guards and dogs, behind a thousand kalanchas, across 87 miles of frozen tundra, and that there you can stay, for years? Are these the words she is looking for? What would she say to you, if she could cry out from inside such a deep place?”
We need only pause for a moment to see the reality of prison life in A Gulag Mouse; to hear the violence of desperation.
Arthur Jolly has written, at face value, a myopic story of five women imprisoned in a brutal Siberian labor camp, without anything but what they can trade, work, lie, maim or even kill for. To the rest of the world they are forgotten. And there is nothing to hope for but survival. All of the women in A Gulag Mouse trapped as they are, will most likely not make it out alive to the end of their sentences. If any do, the scars of the mind will be far worse than the scars on their bodies.
The story centers around Anastasia, a former nurse, who, rather than succumbing to one more beating from her inordinately abusive husband, unexpectedly and unfortunately returned, alive, from the war, stabs him, which lands her in a Siberian labor camp. Once there, she must deal with and defend herself against the vicious, bunk house inmates who have constructed a depraved pecking order over food scraps, bed privileges and sexual services; an intricate, ever-shifting, codependency which has them nearly killing each other at any given moment. Anastasia’s “soft hands” and “pretty hair” become an immediate battle grounds for the other women who know her beauty is about to usurp the regular favorite and possibly any remnants of certainty they’ve worked so hard to achieve. The reality is however, that the conditions of the camp are so harsh, she probably won’t even survive the week. She is therefore, expendable.
Written as a thriller, A Gulag Mouse, currently making its Los Angeles premiere at the Black Box theater at Sacred Fools (spectacularly renovated as an intimate semi-round) certainly has guts. The raw, gray, set design by Aaron Francis enhanced by the lighting design of Matthew Richter and Adam Earle, deeply evokes the stark and tenuous conditions of the camp as does the costuming by Linda Muggeridge. And although the direction takes a slightly disorienting turn towards the end of the show, it remains steady in its horrifying, realistic impact, entrenched in Jolly’s own idea of the “inextricable experience of being a woman”. Indeed this play was written as a response to his own personal struggle of being powerless to help the most important women in his own life, at a time when they were in crisis.
There is a strong sense of “sacrifice” in this play, indeed it is an overarching thread which ultimately separates Anastasia as the new prisoner from the gang.
Also remarkable is the way Jolly has amalgamated this “scenario of a thousand lives” into a single focal point of violent abuse and reprehensible ideologies or more than acceptable social standards by the men they’ve had to defend themselves against on the outside as well as inside of the camp.
In a word, brutal.
in Special Arrangement with Next Stage Press