- - Monday, July 30, 2012

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Branded by human rights groups as one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Uzbekistan is perhaps the last place one would expect an experimental theater company to thrive.

Yet Tashkent’s Ilkholm theater has been going strong for nearly 30 years, and continues to deal with controversial themes such as sexuality and government repression.

“There are a lot of difficult taboo questions in our society,” says Marina Turpisheva, one Ilkhom’s founding actors. “When people see them on stage, they are frightened. But if you do not [do this], then people will remain in their closed world.”

When Mark Weil, an ethnic Russian Jew of Uzbek nationality, founded the Ilkholm (“Inspiration” in Uzbek) in 1976, the theater thrived on its distance from Moscow in the Soviet era. Tashkent was a hub for intellectuals and artists, and Mr. Weil’s theater in a hotel basement was an instant hit that soon began touring the Soviet Union.

In 1991, Weil founded an acting school, and the Ilkhom troupe struck up partnerships with theaters in Seattle, Wash. — Tashkent’s sister city.

“The Ilkholm theater played a leading role in glasnost and the cultural opening out that led to the end of the Soviet Union,” said Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan. “But Uzbekistan increasingly became more oppressive than the Soviet regime had been.”

To this day, there is no free media and opposition politicians face harassment and arrest. The Internet, social networks and nontraditional music styles are demonized as dangerous Western imports.

Fear of repression

“There is a fear that radical or righteous ideas will be born here inspired by Western concepts of freedom, and ultimately you will have a generation of young people who see the hypocrisy of the system and start making a fuss,” said Tyler Polumsky, a Seattle-born graduate of Ilkholm’s acting school.

Sources associated with the theater say its relationship with the authorities is strained at best.

“The only thing that keeps the officials from the closing of the theater is the fear of a huge international response,” said one source who asked not to be named, as the theater follows a policy of diplomatic silence when it comes to commenting on the government.

Uzbek artists are discouraged from working with the Ilkholm, which has never been invited to the national theater festival Theatre.UZ.

A Tashkent-based Uzbek journalist who asked not to be named said that members of the pro-government “morality” group Spirituality and Enlightenment often attend Ilkholm performances to intimidate audience members.

“Everybody knows who they are,” the journalist said. “They write in notepads everything they see and hear and report to their bosses. They want to seed fear in the theater.”

He added that students and public employees risk losing their funding or jobs if they are spotted at the theater.

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