- - 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.

Image problems

In one of the Ilkholm’s touring plays, “White White Black Stork,” the young male protagonist is forced into marriage after he confesses his love for another man to his father — a hugely taboo subject for Uzbekistan’s predominantly conservative Muslim society.

But the actors say their mission is not to offend.

“We are not trying to provoke people into some kind of reaction,” said Ilkholm actor Vyacheslav Tszyu. “We simply interpret the world in which we live and the essence of things as we see it.”

A recent flashpoint was the first Central Asian Independent Film Festival (CAFIF), which the Ilkhom hosted in June. More than 40 films were screened, including documentaries on the fate of Afghan refugees and treatment of disabled people in Central Asia, as well as a portrait of an Uzbek professional Hitler impersonator.

“We saw negative images expressed with more emotion than the glamorous, positive images we see in official films,” said Alex Ulko who sat on CAFIF’s jury. “Pictures of devastation, poverty, drinking, haggling and so on. People are tired of the sugary images the government puts on the screen.”

But gritty depictions of life in Uzbekistan don’t tend to go down well with the authorities: In 2010, photographer Umida Akhmedova was convicted of slander for her images of rural life that the government claimed portrayed the country as place “where people live in the Middle Ages.”

After the festival, the Ilkhom was besieged with calls from the Ministry of Culture demanding an explanation and has since been subject to an ongoing financial audit.

‘Like a living organism’

It wasn’t the first time the Ilkhom had appeared under threat. In 2007, Weil was murdered on the steps of his apartment building.

“I felt the danger after the murder of Mark Weil,” said Boris Gafurov, Ilkhom’s artistic director. “The whole team felt it. Nobody knew what would happen, especially since we didn’t know who did it and why.”

Three Muslim men were convicted of Weil’s murder last year. The official line is that they had been offended by Weil’s staging of Pushkin’s “Imitating the Koran.”

But many believe men were scapegoats.

“I think it’s almost certain that the three men who were convicted of killing him weren’t the people who killed him,” said Mr. Murray, who knew Weil personally. “It’s a totalitarian regime. People who are opposed to the government are going to suffer violence. That’s just how the country is.”

Uzbekistan’s high rate of emigration also provides a challenge for the Ilkholm. Ten percent of Uzbekswork abroad, and young Uzbeks with creative talent often prefer to pursue careers in more open societies.

But Mr. Polumsky insists that the theater’s pioneering spirit will continue to drive it forward.

“Since [Weil‘s] death, there have been hard times and good times,” he says. “But any theater is like a living organism. It has its own life cycle.

Weil set the direction, and the people who are there are doing their best to hold the course and it is not becoming simply a relic… The search for something fresh and new is still there at the heart of it all.”

The reporter, based in Tashkent, has requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals. Ruth Owen contributed to this report from Kabul, Afghanistan.