Lang Theatre Professor Zishan Ugurlu Brings First Finnish Play to American Soil
On an exceptionally warm February night, the audience of a small New York theater is buoyant with expectation. The steady murmur of mixed English and Finnish quiets down when the lights grow dim, leaving the understated stage illuminated with harsh white light. The curtain in the back of the stage is abruptly pulled back, revealing two men yelling in Russian and furiously raping a young girl in front of a poster of Joseph Stalin.
This haunting scene is the opening act of Purge; a play brought to East Village’s legendary La MaMa Theater by Zishan Ugurlu, who is the artistic director of Actors Without Borders and an assistant theater professor at Lang. Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen’s highly acclaimed work tells the story of women caught in the wave of violence that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990’s. Through the characters of a young girl who escaped human trafficking in Russia and an old Estonian woman with a turbulent past, Oksanen paints a grim picture of Estonia’s recent history and the price women had to pay for freedom.
The originally Finnish play was expanded into a book in 2008 and translated into English two years later. Once director Zishan Ugurlu read the script, she knew she had something challenging but powerful in her hands.
“I had to find a way to present the story compellingly enough for the audience to engage in it for two hours,” Ugurlu says.
Photo by Mehmet Kubilay Yilmam
A Finnish author’s work had never been made into a play on American soil before. The Eastern and Northern European way of thinking has been portrayed in literature as notoriously dark and crude; after directing the works of Lars Noren and Federico Lorca, among others, Ugurlu took on the difficult task of presenting the marginal countries' mindset to New York’s theater world.
The set, designed by Ugurlu, was left intentionally bare, giving even more impact to all the dirty secrets, blame and guilt that are thrown around the stage during the play. The raised stage hides tunnels that allow the actors to move across the room even during a scene without being visible to the audience. This adds to the purposeful unpredictability of the play and heightens the tension that lingers in the background of even the most serene moments. Zishan Ugurlu captures the mix of fear, anticipation and confusion that hung over Eastern Europe after World War II ended and when the Soviet Union fell apart – two events that the play uses as landmines to explain the story to its audience.
After the final applause dies down, the Finnish-English conversation in the audience slowly picks up again. What was just witnessed on stage – a haunting portrayal of lifetimes spent weary with shame and guilt – exposed the audience to a part of European history that is relatively unknown to the majority of Americans. La MaMa’s production of Purge was only staged for ten days and was sold out every night. Sofi Oksanen’s book version has won several awards, including the prestigious Finlandia award and has been translated into thirty-eight languages.