Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot performs in Belarus Free Theatre’s “Burning Doors.” (Alex Brenner/AP)
Theater critic

For riveting confirmation of how strong the "resistance" can be, consider the cut, ripped and hyper-fit performers of Belarus Free Theatre's "Burning Doors."

They're muscling their way Thursday into the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the University of Maryland's College Park campus to expose theatergoers to their ferociously theatrical style of attack on the forces of political oppression. And among the eight actors is one who makes a particularly convincing case for speaking truth to power: Maria Alyokhina, one of the three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian female punk-rock collective, who was sent to prison in 2012 after staging a demonstration in an Orthodox church in Moscow to protest the Russian clergy's support for President Vladimir Putin.

Alyokhina's presence in the production, directed by Belarus Free Theatre founders Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, further bolsters the urgency and moral authority of "Burning Doors," a multimedia paean to those who struggle for the rights of the individual and against the brutality of the state. It's a topic of ongoing concern for Belarus Free Theatre, which embarked in 2005 on a mission to dramatize — and criticize — aspects of a restrictive society in which the company challenged the limits being imposed on artistic expression. Going underground was the only way it was able to stage shows in Minsk, Belarus's capital; its founders went into exile, sending directorial instructions back home via Skype.

I've seen Belarus Free Theatre productions in New York and London; one of its first American visits was to Georgetown University, in 2009. And in its previous stop last week, at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in Manhattan's East Village, I caught a performance of the current show, which stops for two performances, Thursday and Friday, in College Park.

In the passionately intelligent "Burning Doors," Belarus Free Theatre presents a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes, in Russian and Belarusan with English surtitles, that look at civil disobedience and the punishments that result, through the prisms of personal sacrifice and art. The nature and permutations of protest are explored through the stories of dissidents such as Pussy Riot and the Ukrainian filmmaker and activist Oleg Sentsov, serving a 20-year prison term in Russia on what have been condemned as trumped-up terrorism charges.

Khalezin and Kaliada have their actors segue into dramatizations of classic literature — most powerfully, an excerpt from "The Grand Inquisitor" in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" — as a means of revealing how deeply embedded in Russian thought is a yearning for spiritual freedom, at the risk of physical suffering. On a set dominated by three numbered cell doors, with the plaintive drumbeat of Alexander Lyulakin's percussive score filling the space, the actors sing, tell tales of defiance against the Russian government, and offer up satirical portraits of Putin functionaries, entertaining one another with accounts of their own wealth.


Pavel Haradnitski and Kiryl Kanstantsinau in "Burning Doors" by Belarus Free Theatre. (Nicolai Khalezin)

At one point, the house lights come up and Alyokhina takes a seat at a table, and the audience is entreated to shoot questions at her, news-conference style. It can be awkward, as the interlude dissolves the show's carefully constructed artifices. But if you're curious about how Pussy Riot survived a terrifying ordeal, this is your opportunity to ask about it.

Nevertheless, the episodic evening builds to a hypnotizing finish, with the actors engaging in an ever more physically demanding set of routines. In one extended scene, a pair of men wrestle for supremacy, in a series of takedowns by one of the other. It goes on and on, for so long, in fact, that you wonder how either of them can remain upright. "Burning Doors" is all about levels of endurance, about how much a human being is capable of withstanding, when giving in is not an option.

Burning Doors, devised and performed by Belarus Free Theatre. Directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. Lighting and video, Joshua Pharo; sound and additional music, Richard Hammarton; original score, Alexander Lyulakin. With Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak. Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau, Maryna Yurevich. $7-$27. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Friday at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, 8270 Alumni Dr., College Park. 301-405-2787 or theclarice.umd.edu.