Alison Denham and Billy Marchenski Credit: Jonathan Kim
Alison Denham and Billy Marchenski
Credit: Jonathan Kim

At the Russian Hall until June 15 or at the door

Posted on June 12, 2013

Why did Billy Marchenski go to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone? No, it’s not a question like, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

The answer is loaded with Marchenski’s history: his mother is of Ukrainian descent, his father of Polish (but Marchenski is spelled in the Ukrainian way). Before going to Ukraine in 2010, he imagined Ukrainians as his “people” and he wanted to understand what they had experienced when at 1:23 AM on April 26, 1986 reactor #4 exploded in Chernobyl, sending clouds of radioactive material around the world.

But Marchenski is a theatre artist – writer, dancer, actor – and not only was he reconnecting with his roots, he saw potential for theatre in the disaster that involved 500,000 volunteer “liquidators” (paid off in horilka, Ukrainian vodka). And so he and his partner, dancer Alison Denham, returned to Ukraine in 2011 and Slowpoke began its journey to the Russian Hall.

Slowpoke is an acronym for Safe Low-Power Kritical Experiment, a low-energy nuclear research reactor designed by the Atomic Energy Commission of Canada. But are we being lulled into complacency by AECC’s Slowpoke? Is anything in the world of nuclear energy ‘safe’? And by extension, Marchenski suggests, is technology speeding us up beyond our capacity to absorb change?

Marchenski and Denham created a slowpoke of a play – but in a good way: two performers, one slide projector and screen, a couple of creaky wooden chairs and singer Beverly Dobrinsky with her hurdy-gurdy.  The scale of the production is decidedly human. No bells, no whistles.

In a low tech and completely compelling fashion, Marchenski and Denham recount their trip to Chernobyl and by tour bus into the thirty-kilometer Exclusion Zone. Requirements: passport, no drugs or alcohol, stay inside the truck unless instructed otherwise, and if allowed out, “try not to step on the ground” – that is, stay on the cement or what’s left of it: stepping, hopping, leaping – but all in slow motion – from one patch of concrete to another because the soil is still so contaminated. All of this is done in an anxious but dancerly way. Marchenski’s hood is up over his hair; Denham pulls her sweater up over her mouth and nose. The slides show us the devastation of the place while Dobrinsky sings.

Denham mimes the other tour members including Russell, an American geophysicist from Dallas, and a constant source of disturbing information about sieverts – the units of measurement of absorbed radiation by the body. This many sieverts and you feel sick; this many more and thyroid cancer is almost a certainty.

And if you don’t know where your thyroid gland is, Denham moves through the audience, ranked in two rows down the sides of the Russian Hall, touching throats.

Beverly Dobrinsky Credit: Jonathan Kim
Beverly Dobrinsky
Credit: Jonathan Kim

Slowpoke is only slightly interactive – say “hryvnia” (Ukrainian currency) Marchenski instructs us – and he offers shots of “horilka” to a couple. It’s all direct address; he’s telling us about his trip to Chernobyl the way friends tell you about their trip to Disneyland. Here are the monuments, here the abandoned houses and here’s a photo of Marchenski and Denham in what he calls “Chernobyl chic”: clothes to be thrown away after visiting the disaster area, especially runners purchased in Kiev prior to going into the zone.

It’s travelogue/dance/theatre/ documentary with tremendous and moving intimacy. Marchenski is poised, almost unnaturally calm as, smilingly, he recounts the adventure. Denham, who speaks almost not at all, conveys an amazing range of emotion in body language: hunched defensively or playfully, like a hopscotching child, moving on invisible pieces of cement.

Dobrinsky’s songs range from haunting folk melodies to light, lyrical ditties. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a work that is, amazingly, about a heavy subject but is treated so candidly and without hype.

Director/dramaturg James Fagan Tait pulls it all brilliantly together for Radix Theatre.

Chernobyl is a fascinating place to visit but you sure don’t want to live there. And Marchenski comes to understand that the people of Ukraine are not really his people. He cannot really comprehend what they went through that terrible night and the following weeks, months and years. He’s a Westerner, he admits, born in Canada with only a few Ukrainian phrases learned from a phrase book: mene zvut’ Billy, Ja z Canada.

But Slowpoke resonates through Marchenski and Denham to touch us. Fukushima happened after Chernobyl, after we were told it would never happen again. What does safe mean and will we ever be safe again?

Alison Denham Credit: Jonathan Kim
Alison Denham
Credit: Jonathan Kim

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