‘WE ARE BANDITS’ brings the Pussy Riot legacy to Philadelphia

Mary Tuomanen and Aimé Donna Kelly rehearse. Image courtesy of Applied Mechanics.

Art imitates and examines life in Applied Mechanics’s latest production, WE ARE BANDITS. Inspired by the Russian feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot, the theater company created a show that’s theater, concert, and interactive audience experience all rolled into one.

Pussy Riot stages performances in unusual public locations focusing on themes including feminism, LGBT rights, opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies, and more. Members of the group were jailed for speaking out (they’ve since been released).

Troubled relationships

In WE ARE BANDITS, Applied Mechanics says it explores the “troubled relationships between state and citizen, art and politics, women and the public sphere,” inspired by Pussy Riot as well as protest music from around the world and resistance movements throughout the ages.

The cast features Thomas Choinacky, Aimé Donna Kelly, Kathryn Raines, Annie Wilson, Isabella Sazak, Anita Marie Holland, Adam Kerbel, and Mary Tuomanen.

Tuomanen, who plays a homeless and marginalized character called “Z,” said the show includes traditional aspects of theater — actors interacting with each other, characters with story arcs. It also has music.

“It’s pretty punk rock,” she said. “I play bucket drums, making a lot of riotous noise.”

A free-flowing show

“There’s no place to sit,” she said of the immersive audience experience. “You explore it at your leisure. You choose what you want to watch.”

No matter what they watch, audiences will see well-founded facts. “We researched feminism, Russia, cronyism, and the way that government structure reinforces it,” she said. “We looked at how resources are kept in the hands of a privileged few.”

And the artists examined what the collision of activism and politics looks like in Russia compared to America. “In Russia, oppression comes from the top down and it’s clear. Here, it’s more complex,” she said. The group thought about protest and “what happens when it’s over. Does it ever finish?”

WE ARE BANDITS features eight characters bearing various relationships with feminism in a fictional American town. In one moment, they come together during a political action that reverberates through their lives.

Hard work for a rich script

“We thought about how we would take the legacy of Pussy Riot and make it our own,” Tuomanen said. “How could we apply those principles to characters like us?”

She added that the actors were almost totally responsible for creating their characters. Archetype suggestions were made at the beginning of the project, and then each actor did research and development. Playing off each other and improvisation helped the pieces to come together.

“It’s a laborious way to work, but it makes for a rich script,” she said.

In the spirit of determined radical feminists, Tuomanen said, the group decided to walk the talk — admission is free to make the art inclusive and accessible. She hopes that people will think about the topics the show explores and will enjoy a unique theater experience.

“People can come back and see different shows,” she said. “Some of what they do might affect the characters and stories. I think people will have a good time.”

WE ARE BANDITS runs from July 19 through 31 at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street, Philadelphia. Reservations are required. For more information, visit www.appliedmechanics.us.