An evening with a socially and politically engaged theater ensemble from the former Soviet Union — if the prospect makes your eyes glaze over expecting a pageant of tedious propaganda, you haven't encountered the transporting art of the Ilkhom Theatre. The company, founded during the Brezhnev era, is based in the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent and is currently presenting a month-long festival hosted by ACT. Seattle is the first stop on a wide-ranging U.S. tour for this internationally well-traveled ensemble.Ilkhom has an extraordinary history. It began as the vision of Mark Weil, a Tashkent-born theater artist of Russian Jewish origin. In 1976 he launched the company's first show, drawing on jazz-like improvisational elements inspired by local Central Asian culture. Ilkhom (its name means "Inspiration" in Uzbek) was an anomaly from the start: Instead of plugging into the usual system of subsidies from the cultural gatekeepers, Weil developed a model that kept his company completely independent of state funding.
Later he expanded Ilkhom's mission and presence by opening an affiliated drama school. The company has cultivated a reputation for boldly experimental theater, somehow managing to evade censorship — not just in the Soviet years but under the government of Uzbekistan as well, which has imposed its own forms of repression.
Weil meanwhile developed a rapport with Seattle (which happens to be Tashkent's "sister city") through an exchange program with the University of Washington. Kurt Beattie, ACT's artistic director, became intent on bringing Ilkhom to Seattle audiences after his first experience with the maverick company a few years ago. But there's a tragic subtext accompanying Ilkhom's debut visit. Just before the season was to begin last September, Weil, only 55 years old, was stabbed to death outside his home (he had just returned from rehearsals for the company's new production of the Oresteia). The murder remains unsolved. Theories range from a politically motivated assassination to a Theo van Gogh-like reprisal on the part of Islamist extremists.
But Weil's legacy lives on in the work of Ilkhom — indeed the quality of their performance is a moving testament to Weil, who directed both shows the company is performing during their sojourn in Seattle. The first — White White Black Stork, playing through April 6 — distills ravishingly fresh poetry for the stage. Its source is the fiction of Abdullah Kadyri, a 19th-century Uzbek writer whose taboo-breaking work was far ahead of its time (Weil and playwright Elkin Tuichiev adapted the script together).
Set in a tradition-bound Tashkent of the early 20th century, Stork replays the familiar theme of young love quashed by implacable social conventions. In this variation, the teenage protagonists, Makhzum and Makhichehra, are forced into a hastily arranged marriage. Makhzum's father, a teacher at the local Sufi madrassa, is desperate to avoid scandal when he discovers his son has fallen in love with another boy; Makhichehra's father is eager to take advantage and gain a handsome "bride price" by promising his daughter — and in the process callously refuses to acknowledge her love for a humble cloth merchant.
The story unfolds with folkloric directness as it builds to its tragic denouement. But you'd have to be theatrically tone-deaf to find mere melodrama here instead of marveling at Ilkhom's unforgettable evocation of the forces that drive these characters — from the exuberant, life-affirming spontaneity of the young lovers to the soul-crushing manipulation by their elders.
Much of the Ilkhom aesthetic is based in techniques of stage movement. It's not a stretch to sense their improv origins as a layer that's still present within their virtuoso ensemble interactions. Indeed, even without following the projected subtitle translations of the Russian (and, in one scene, Uzbek) script, you could observe an entirely visual language of gesture and carriage. For example, when the play starts, young Said Khudaibergenov — playing the generous-spirited young Makhzum — dashes and bolts about the stage with uninhibited abandon. It's heart-rending to watch his physical transformation at the psychological pivot-point. Suddenly you sense how he'll end up taking after his father (brilliantly portrayed as a hobbled, resigned wraith of a man by Boris Gafurov).
The coltish, lovestruck playfulness of Nigora Karimbaeva's Makhichehra similarly mutates into wounded withdrawal. Her father — played by film actor Seydulla Moldakhanov — holds his implicit violence only barely in check with a scheming hauteur. Not that Stork is unrelentingly grim. There are nice comic turns by Sayfiddin Melliyev as the town's pompous, venal cleric and Nargis Abduallaeva is a feisty, protective busybody of a sister as she keeps vigil during Makhichehra's wedding night.
Shukhrat Abdumalikov's simple set of a tree with swings attached to its branches literally allows the young characters to revolve around the stage — a symbolic oasis where their imaginations can take flight until they are forcibly tethered. One minor quibble is the sound engineering for Aziza Sadykova's surreal score, which is at times awkwardly integrated into the proceedings.
The thwarted gay love story in Stork is never heavy-handed or preachy. And it's only one of the provocative elements of a play that critiques conformist hypocrisy. Weil's theatrical sensibility offers a poetic alternative to Stanislavski's all-too-familiar realism, without sacrificing its grounding in psychological truth.
After White White Black Stork, Ilkhom will present a second show, Ecstasy with the Pomegranate. This is a work of dance theater that uses the real-life story of a painter who studied with Malevich to explore the interface between Uzbek Sufi culture and the early Soviet revolutionaries. Even if your enthusiasm for theater has dried up, Ilkhom might be just the ticket to rekindle it.