“Don’t Fire, the Guns Are Loaded!”

Statue of Turkish revolutionary Ataturk (photo by theater-words)

In his monumental books, the brilliant Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk carefully draws a world that both screams for political action and aches for a beautiful, melancholic past. It’s a furious, self-aware kind of nostalgia that seeps into every nook and cranny of his tight, Nobel-winning prose.

“Snow,” one of Pamuk’s more recent novels, is no exception to this rule: a provincial Turkish town’s civic disaster (Muslim girls are hanging themselves) is played in vivid counterpoint to a poet’s delicate journey to enlightenment. It’s a searing story that has made Pamuk (already a controversial figure) even more divisive in his homeland.

One of “Snow’s” more dramatic scenes came to mind at Ronan Noone’s new play “Little Black Dress.” As staged by Ari Edelson, “Dress” features a disconcertingly realistic double-barrel shotgun that gets the better of a rogue TV. The gun is obviously shooting blanks, but at the performance I saw, its terrible crack and whiff of smoke sent a ripple of fear through the audience: if that gun had really been loaded, we were all sitting ducks.

In “Snow,” that nightmare turns real when a group actor/soldiers turns on an audience and fires live rounds. As narrated by Pamuk, the scene is a hallucinatory muddle of truth and fiction, of symbols and objective fact – a case study in the disorienting, overwhelmingly strange powers that govern the workings of a theater space.

The buildup to the mayhem is an old Soviet play called “My Fatherland or My Headscarf.” In it, a devout Muslim woman removes and burns her covering, faces retribution, and is ultimately saved by Republican (secular) soldiers.

When the soldiers punishing the heroine start shooting real bullets at the audience, the theatergoers don’t know how to parse the intersection of truth and fiction: “The people of Kars, unaccustomed to the modern device of sending actors among the audience, were first alarmed and then amused.” This Brechtian confusion continues during a speech, where “it was unclear whether this was another theatrical ruse… A number of Kars residents – out of touch as they were with modern theatrical conventions – took it for yet another bit of experimental staging.”

The story infuriates the political Muslims in the audience in the peculiar ways only a play can: “They … suspected that the whole thing had been deliberately staged to provoke them. So every time they heckled the players, every time them threw half an orange or cushion onto the stage, they were one step closer to a trap that had been laid just for them, and it was the knowledge of their helplessness that made them even angrier.”

The confusing power dynamics of a play are brought front and center in these passages. Who is in control — the actors? The authorities? The audience? The power of performance all but paralyzes those not performing. One witness says, “Those of us who were sitting in the back knew something terrible had happened. But we were afraid that if we moved from our seats to get a better look, the terror would find us, so we just sat there watching without making a sound.”

Theaters are strange enough; guns elevate that confusion to a dizzying level. They are the most confusing and strangest of props, objects hijacked from their deadly purpose for something entertaining. But it’s impossible to entirely give into the entertainment factor – one can never forget that the bullets just might be real. That vibrating place of uneasiness is where theater can be most effective, but it’s a delicate place to maneuver. Novelists like Pamuk demonstrate the unending shades and turmoil that emerge when such a maneuver comes onstage.

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