Though it covers widely reported events more than 15 years after the fact, “Light From the East” generates genuine suspense as it follows a group of American actors in the former Soviet Union during a fateful period of the Perestroika era. Illuminating time-capsule doc boasts impressive technical polish, and could find receptive auds in commercial and nonprofit venues after its May 11-17 premiere run at New York’s Two Boots Pioneer Theater.
The year is 1991, and bad timing turns out to be good fortune for helmer Amy Grappell. She and other members of New York’s La Mama Theater are in the Ukraine to take part in a bilingual stage production with Ukrainian counterparts when the attempted coup in Moscow threatens to drag the region back to the bad old days.
Grappell starts out an inquisitive tourist, asking locals how they feel about freedom after decades of Soviet rule. Helmer’s host, prickly and pessimistic dramaturge Natalia Shevchenko, is supposed to provide literal translation during interviews. More often than not, however, Shevchenko instead offers cynical commentary concerning respondents who care more about whether store shelves are full than they do about freedom of expression.
Doc’s tone changes dramatically as reports circulate that Gorbachev has disappeared, the Kremlin has been overthrown, and power now lies in the hands of a few military men. Shocked — and, perhaps, more than a little frightened — the helmer asks Shevchenko: “Does this happen often?”
The stranger-than-fiction irony: At a time that was filled with dark portents of renewed repression, increasingly anxious U.S. and Ukrainian thesps were collaborating on a play about Les Aurbas, a maverick theater artist who rebelled against Soviet Realism and was killed during a 1937 Stalinist purge.
By the time the actors complete their limited run, the coup has been turned back, Ukraine declares its independence — and “Light From the East” demonstrates that, on stage on off, nothing is more satisfying than a happy ending.