State vs. Natasha Banina: A Gripping Interactive Performance

Kelly Gallagher ‘22


Sick of Zoom? You’d have to make an exception for State vs. Natasha Banina, a performance unlike anything you’ve experienced before on Zoom – or anywhere else, for that matter. Directed by Igor Golyak, the live performance stars Darya Denisova (2020 Elliot Norton Award-winner for Outstanding Actress) as the titular character Natasha Banina, a teenaged Russian orphan who must plead her case against charges of attempted manslaughter. Arts Transcending Borders sponsored a performance for the College of the Holy Cross on Thursday, February 11, providing nearly 100 community members with the opportunity to act as the jury in the interactive production, presented by the Arlekin Theatre Players.

Darya Denisova’s captivating performance as Natasha Banina is unforgettable. Coming to the audience from the confines of her cell, Natasha doesn’t simply share her story aloud. Instead, she constantly engages the audience, whether she’s reading aloud the names of actual attendees in her appeals, flashing them middle fingers, or asking them if they have a dream. She tells the audience her own dream is for her love interest to tell her, “‘Natasha, you’re the best damn chick on earth. Would you marry me?’” Natasha’s dream reveals her yearning to matter to someone else, to love and be loved. Her yearning has grown since the loss of her mother, who spent much of Natasha’s childhood in prison, but still made sure to send her daughter letters telling her “I love you.” In a scene that tugs at the heartstrings, Natasha forlornly informs the audience that her mother didn’t mean anything to anyone except Natasha. 

Photo by Igor Golyak, courtesy of the ATB website

Denisova’s performance is augmented by visual effects you probably didn’t know were possible in Zoom, such as switching between camera views, animations of astronauts and smoking cigarettes, and experimenting with color palettes mid-performance, with the main color scheme washing Natasha in a pearly gray except for the pink of her lips, cheeks, and hair clip. The innovative use of the Zoom environment is thrilling enough to make the weariest Zoom-zombie forget their complaints, drawing them deeper into Natasha’s gripping story and vibrant, though troubled, spirit. 

At the end of Natasha’s trial, the audience is presented with a survey, where they voted “guilty” or “not guilty,” deciding Natasha’s fate. The Holy Cross audience’s final verdict was passed by a narrow margin, demonstrating the complexity of Natasha’s case. During the talkback following the performance, Director Igor Golyak discussed how audience members’ decisions often linger with them, sharing that previous attendees have sought out a second viewing in order to cast a different vote. State vs. Natasha Banina challenges its viewers to grapple with difficult questions – how do we judge others? What is guilt? What is justice? 

Most viewers stayed for the talkback, gushing over the performance and asking a wide variety of questions. Golyak and Denisova, who are a married couple, happily shared behind-the-scenes details about how they staged the piece in their living room, how Denisova prepared for her role, and their experience performing for international audiences since last summer. The production, which is based on a monologue called “Natasha’s Dream,” written by Russian playwright Yaroslava Pulinovich, has earned widespread acclaim and even scored a Critic’s Pick review in The New York Times. The performance will certainly stick with its Holy Cross audience members for a long time, as well as the question – if virtual theatre can be so charged, what future lies in store for the genre?

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