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Round House’s Russia-set play blends high tech and timeliness

Inspired by a 2002 hostage crisis in Moscow, ‘We Declare You a Terrorist …’ uses digital projection to tell a story that foreshadows current events

From left: Ava Eisenson as Kayira, Cody Nickell as the Writer, Elliott Bales as FSB Officer and Bekah Zornosa as Masha in “We Declare You a Terrorist …” at Round House Theatre. (Lawrence E. Moten III)
6 min

Jared Mezzocchi was making dinner last month after a rehearsal of the play “We Declare You a Terrorist …” at Round House Theatre when he flipped on the news, saw the name of the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia blazoned across the chyron, and promptly texted his co-director, Ryan Rilette, in disbelief about the latest overlap between their artistic endeavor and real-world events.

Before working on the production — a dramatization of the deadly 2002 hostage crisis in which Chechen radicals seized a crowded Moscow theater — Mezzocchi and Rilette had never heard of Zaporizhzhia. But in Tim J. Lord’s play, the central character happens to be a Ukraine-born playwright who hails from that riverside industrial hub. After Russian forces recently shelled the city’s nuclear plant, a previously obscure reference suddenly played as a ripped-from-the-headlines nod.

From the archive: 90 hostages killed in Moscow theater

“Every single day,” Rilette says, “we are reminded of how much this play intersects with the current realities in the world.”

Lord has spent nearly two decades developing “We Declare You a Terrorist …,” which is set during the Second Chechen War, early in Vladimir Putin’s first presidency. A blend of in-person theater and digital projection, Round House’s world-premiere production began rehearsals two days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

“The idea of doing this play with the backdrop of millions of people displaced and thousands of innocent civilians being not just killed but targeted, it’s humbling,” Lord says. “People say, ‘You guys are really taking advantage of this.’ Taking advantage of it feels awful — it feels morally wrong. But the kinds of conversations that I think the play is trying to spark are absolutely necessary.”

Lord says the seeds of “We Declare You a Terrorist …” were planted in 2003, when he saw the documentary “Terror in Moscow” and learned that one of the surviving hostages of the Dubrovka Theater crisis was Georgi Vasilyev — the Ukrainian-born co-writer of the musical being staged that night. After initially penning a straightforward depiction of the hostage crisis, Lord revisited the material in 2009 and eventually landed on a two-timeline structure: a fact-based account of Vasilyev’s experience interacting with a Chechen hostage taker and a fully imagined story set a year later.

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In that second timeline, the protagonist — inspired by Vasilyev but referred to in the script simply as “the Writer” — finds himself in a Federal Security Service detention cell after being caught trying to sneak into Chechnya. As the Russian citizen recounts the hostage crisis during a subsequent interrogation, he finds himself considering his own culpability in the violent actions of his nation’s government. (Scores of hostages died when Russian special forces stormed the theater after pumping in sleeping gas.) The Writer’s nationalist interrogator, meanwhile, longs for when Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were united — one of many lines written some time ago that now ring as eerily prophetic.

“It’s asking, at some point, how do you stop the cycle of violence?” says Cody Nickell, who plays the Writer. “How do you choose to not engage in blood feuds or vengeance but to actually try to make peace? Those are important lessons, I think, no matter what the news cycle is talking about.”

In 2018, Round House commissioned Lord to polish the play. After Rilette and Mezzocchi co-directed a multimedia-driven production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in 2019, the duo kicked around the idea of turning “We Declare You a Terrorist …” into their next collaboration. Their original vision was fairly straightforward: Present the interrogation scenes onstage, film the flashbacks to the hostage crisis ahead of time and project those clips onstage every time the play plunges into the Writer’s memory.

“It feels like this is a perfect multimedia piece,” Mezzocchi says, “about what is digitally imprinted in our minds and what is right in front of us.”

But after the coronavirus pandemic delayed the production and pushed the theater community to embrace live, digital storytelling, Rilette and Mezzocchi decided to take those newly sharpened skills and film the flashbacks in real time every night, through technology Mezzocchi calls “local Zoom.”

When audiences take in “We Declare You a Terrorist …,” they will see Nickell’s protagonist and Elliott Bales’s interrogator sharing scenes onstage. But when the Writer flashes back to the Dubrovka Theater crisis, and his interactions with a Chechen radical (played by Ava Eisenson) and a young hostage (Bekah Zornosa), those two actors won’t be in the room; instead, their performances will be filmed and beamed live onstage from a makeshift soundstage elsewhere in the building. Through hidden cameras in the theater, Nickell’s performance will also be captured and projected — creating the digital image of him alongside Eisenson and Zornosa, even though the actors physically occupy different spaces.

“The past, the trauma, the flashbacks are all digital, but they are still live,” Rilette says. “I have to say it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We stumbled upon it naturally in a lot of ways, but it really adds a whole new layer to the play.”

“I’m super grateful that I’m in a room of people that aren’t just saying, ‘Thank God we’re back to the old ways,’” Mezzocchi adds. “There’s such a binary of ‘digital vs. not digital’ or ‘in person vs. Internet.’ What I’ve appreciated most about Round House is those conversations don’t exist at the theater. They’re just trying to tell the best story with the tools that they have.”

Lord recalls that when Rilette pitched him on the concept, the co-director said he was compelled by the idea partially because it frightened him. When it came to pairing the uncannily timely material with that boundary-pushing technology, Lord didn’t need any further convincing.

“I responded to that,” Lord says, “because I feel similarly in terms of my own work — that if the idea terrifies me, I must be doing something right.”

If you go

We Declare You a Terrorist …

Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. 240-644-1100.

Dates: Through May 8.

Prices: $41-$78.