The Russian gulags — prison camps in the frozen north of Siberia — operated for more than four centuries, swallowing hundreds of millions of lives into forced labor.
The camps (known as katorgas under the Tsars) were the standard punishment for anyone accused of a crime, from plotting a revolt to stealing a loaf of bread — or merely irritating a well-connected neighbor.
Most prisoners, of course, died of starvation, cold, and constant physical abuse. Some survived. But what could emerge from such inhumane hells?
Arthur M. Jolly’s A Gulag Mouse considers this question, taking us to a primitive camp building where five condemned women share two bunks, a cot, and an iron stove. We arrive with Anastasia, a young woman who has become a widow by killing her abusive husband.
We share in her discovery of the others — angry, bullying Masha; quiet, street-tough Svetlana; cowering Prushka, the “mouse”; and pretty Lubov, who sells sex to buy them all food and protection from a guard. When Masha critically injures Lubov, the group demands that Anastasia, also young and pretty, take up her duties.
In prison, there are only two things to do: fight to survive, and plan to escape. Soon, this beleaguered dysfunctional family turns their attention to escape, and the story ends with their attempt.
But the play continues. A final, dreamlike sequence calls into question everything we’ve seen. Only stories, we realize, are left — the ones survivors tell, the memories they wander through while staring out a window, and of course the official records.
As anyone living with PTSD knows, it’s impossible to emerge from hell merely sane. Who will ever know — not simply what happened, but what it cost, what surviving it demanded?
A Gulag Mouse offers an intense, sobering hour amid the worst we can inflict on one another, and in the aftermath. The play’s simulated inferno is gentler than the real thing (as it must be), but it affects us — because the artists do focused, felt work.
Emily Goss (Anastasia), in an open and honest portrayal, gains our trust in the early scenes and leads us into the depths and beyond. Kimberly Atkinson (Masha) magnificently terrorizes the room, while letting us see the deep uncertainty that keeps her from actually leading. Crystal Keith jabs and retreats as Svetlana, slowly establishing her emotional authority; and Heather L. Tyler gives the jaded Lubov a full range, from sweet nobility to frank viciousness. Meanwhile, hidden under a blanket, Dana DeRuyck quietly gathers power, making the mouse into this tiny world’s moral arbiter.
The hand of director Danielle Ozymandias is (like the mouse) unobtrusive but effective, holding us firmly in this hermetic space.
Set designer Aaron Francis transforms the Black Box into a drab, uncomfortable space, while Matthew Richter and Adam Earle’s lighting fascinates and focuses us.
Playwright Jolly has described writing A Gulag Mouse as a “desperate attempt” to honor women who survive suffering. In choosing the Siberian prison camps as his metaphor, he has given us a painful but crucial reminder of our common history — and a keen sense of what every abused human being undergoes, and loses.
A Gulag Mouse, by Arthur M. Jolly, directed by Danielle Ozymandias.
Presented by Sacred Fools Theater Company, at the Sacred Fools Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., LA 90038.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through May 21.
Tickets: <www.sacredfools.org> or (310) 281-8337.