LeeAnne Hill Adams
As the lights come up on a gaunt and tattered chorus, we hear a chant: ï¿½We have a duty to the dead. We must tell their story.ï¿½ And thus begins LeeAnne Hill Adamsï¿½ powerful evocation of life in the Soviet Gulag, Archipelago. Adamsï¿½ play tells the story of an number of Russian intellectuals imprisoned in the Kolya labor camp at the height of Stalinï¿½s power, primarily focusing on several female prisoners, in particular Russian poet Nina Hagen-Torn. Hagen-Torn and her fellow ï¿½counter-revolutionariesï¿½ cling to their humanity by supporting each other in a daily fight for survival, but also by producing a play, Nikolai Gogolï¿½s classic The Inspector General.
The subject matter is as grim as a Siberian winter, but Adamsï¿½ approach to this material is as theatrically innovative as it is morally compelling. Alternating scenes of the grimmest naturalism with scenes of savagely grotesque cartoonishness, Adamsï¿½ work invokes the spirit of that great Russian theatrical experimentalist Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was himself murdered by order of the KGB. Stalin cavorts with beaming Russian children in Soviet propaganda commercials, and in an animated sequence, the cartoons of Marx and Lenin carry on a heated, nonsensical Monty Pythonesque ideological debate. In the meantime, the Kolya prisoners share their tiny rations of black bread, are worked to the breaking point, and fight off the unwelcome attentions of their guards.
Like such great plays of the Jewish Holocaust as Charlotte Delboï¿½s Who Will Carry the Word, Adams seems particularly concerned with honoring the memory of those who died. Hagen-Torn helped her fellow prisoners retain their humanity and sanity through her love of poetry. Under her direction, the prisoners captured their experiences in poetry, and then memorized each other's poems. Meanwhile, teeth chattering from the brutal cold and half-starved, the actors rehearsed and performed The Inspector General.
What is the utility of art, of drama, of poetry? Archipelago reminds us that art can be the way we express our humanity, that it can remind us what it means to be human. Of course, art can also anesthetize usï¿½the effete Kolya commander basks in his own benevolence by allowing the production to go forward, proud of his own cultured urbanity, all while the prisoners under his care starve and die. But art can also connect us to the best of what makes us human, the divine spark within.
Adams has written a play as insightful as it is innovative, a play that employs all the resources of the theatre.to tell a story, to invoke an era, and to honor the dead. The Association for Mormon Letters is proud to honor LeeAnne Hill Adams and Archipelago.