Nice Girls Don’t Explode


Show #50: TERRORiSTKA, Threshold, May 2.

Kate Jopson and Sarah Rose Butler in TERRORiSTKA. Photo by

By Sam Hurwitt

Rebecca Bella’s play TERRORiSTKA is based on an actual incident in July 2003 (coincidentally the same month I met the playwright during a writing workshop in St. Petersburg, where she was living as a Fulbright scholar) in which a young Chechen woman named Zarema Muzhahoyeva was arrested in Moscow for having carried a bomb that she decided not to detonate, but that then blew up when an explosive expert tried to defuse it. Muzhahoyeva was one of many female suicide bombers in Russia in the last decade, her case unusual mainly in that she didn’t go through with it.

According to Bella’s program notes, she was so haunted by the story and Zarema’s face in the newspaper that she started writing poems from the perspectives of Zarema, the man who died, and his wife, and these voices started to weave together into a play. And it’s a haunting, lyrical one, as evidenced by artistic director Jessica Holt’s artful world premiere staging for the new theater company Threshold.

Tall, blotchy red backdrops like abstract paintings hang on either side of the room in Chad Owens’s minimal set, with the faint shadow of an eagle visible in the one above the Jailbird. She sits on a barred platform on one side, while Lena stands on the opposite side surrounded by a baby carriage and a small side table with a teacup and empty picture frame. Lena is the widow of Alex, the man who died trying to defuse the bomb Zarema carried, and she and the Jailbird spit venom at each other in parallel monologues that sometimes become dialogue (and are often harder to focus on than the rest of the play). The Jailbird is Zarema in prison, remembering how she got there, and the action on the floor between the two women tells her story.

I should say the two widows, because Zarema is a young widow before she arrives at the training camp in the hills of Chechnya.  Everyone in the camp is there because they lost family in the fight for Chechen independence and are looking to strike back at Russia for it.

As the younger version of Zarema, Sara Rose Butler comes off as younger even than the 22 years she claims. She seems too young to be a wife and a mother, let alone a widow whose child has been taken away. She’s giddy about going to Moscow and getting to use a cell phone, and seems completely oblivious to the fact that both these things are meant to set the stage for her suicide bombing.

The scenes in the training camp are the most naturalistic part of what is not ultimately a naturalistic play. Zarema carries on a girlish flirtation with the friendly Mohamed (a boyishly charming Geof Libby) and runs afoul of blustery scoldings by the stentorian rebel leader Rustan (Alex Curtis, taking it a bit over the top). He drills them furiously on cover stories and even the choice of tea over coffee on the train to Moscow.  Adrienne Krug brings somber gravity to the role of Fatima, an elder widow in a black hijab who’s tasked with “preparing the eagles for flight,” meaning training women to set off bombs in crowded places, killing themselves and as many people around them as possible.

The rhetoric seems to be that it’s easier for pretty young women to talk their way around Russian police and other officials than it is for dark-complected males, but ultimately it seems to come down to considering women disposable. When Rustan in anger says Mohamed could wear the bomb instead of Zarema, Mohamed says it’s “women’s work.”

Costumed by Tammy Berlin in an almost Pierrot-like striped prison uniform, Kate Jopson is particularly compelling as she watches the events of her past, subtly mirroring the movements of her younger self or just staring dreamily into the middle distance. She moves sensuously as she remembers a lover’s caress, rises in defensively indignant defiance at the accusing figures of Lena and Alex, and occasionally descends to loom over or alongside the young Zarema.

Hardened by her grief, Molly Holcomb’s Lena watches sternly from across the room, calls for severe crackdowns on rebel activity, but mostly sings a bitter lullaby to her baby, its lyrics many and ever-changing but the familiar melody always the same. She also mirrors certain moments, most notably lighting a cigarette whenever Mohamed does the same.

Also watching from the sidelines is poor dead Alex (Andy Strong), with an impassive expression or lack thereof on his pallid, drawn face. It’s he who deposits the Jailbird in her cage and he occasionally interacts either harshly with her or tenderly with Lena. He also functions in the play as an all-purpose ominous official, which means that if you don’t know how the real-life story goes you might think the train conductor could die at any moment.

A couple of poetic prerecorded passages spoken by an unseen chorus fade quietly into the background, but Gregory Scharpen’s sound design helps bring things to life with subtle birdsong, train sounds, and ominous music.

Although it’s been highly stylized around the edges of the action all along, the play enters a nightmare space when they get to Moscow, with the rest of the cast bedeviling poor overwhelmed Zarema as a variety of scary big-city Muscovites while Rustan and Mohamed whisper in her ears, and everything’s in rhymed couplets. From there things play out pretty much as expected, but the closing moment between the women on the edges provides a nice sense of resolution. All in all, it’s a compelling, soulful examination of the tough topic of terrorism and the all too human roads that lead to it.

TERRORiSTKA plays through May 16 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

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