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Artist Profile: Sasha Denisova Merges Comedy and Tragedy in “The Gaaga”

Sasha Denisova, celebrated playwright and director, brings her background as a Ukrainian refugee into her theatrical work.
Sasha Denisova, celebrated playwright and director, brings her background as a Ukrainian refugee into her theatrical work. By Courtesy of Sasha Denisova
By Lola J. DeAscentiis, Contributing Writer

It’s been well over a year since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. Though news of the war may now feel distant for those outside of Ukraine and Russia, it remains close and personal for many refugees.

One Ukrainian refugee, Sasha Denisova, is a celebrated playwright and director who has continued to make art since fleeing to Poland at the onset of the war. Denisova’s most recent theatrical work is “The Gaaga,” a “site specific phantasmagoria” that premieres in the U.S. in June, incorporating humor, tragedy, and political commentary to express the toll of war.

“The Gaaga” centers on the hopeful imagination of a young Ukrainian girl who dreams of Vladimir Putin and his allies facing a trial for war crimes. The play takes place in the bomb shelter where this 17-year-old has found refuge, though the scenes that play out depict her unlimited imagination.

“I’m really into merging the documented reality — the real facts, something that already exists — with fiction and science fiction,” Denisova said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson, translated by actress and colleague Darya Denisova.

To perfect this merging, Denisova spent long periods of time researching the speeches of Putin and other government officials to make their dialogue as realistic as possible. Additionally, Denisova incorporates facts into political fiction when she writes that Putin and others are placed in The Hague Penitentiary Institution, a real prison operated by the International Criminal Court. Hague is pronounced “gaaga” in Russian, thus serving as the play’s namesake. Denisova added that this purposefully corresponds with most babies’ first verbal sound.

“It gives us a picture of today’s Putin, who’s killing innocent people, children, civilians in general on a daily basis,” Denisova said, discussing the production’s greater purpose. “Now, there’s this image in front of us of Putin in misery being in prison already, and this closing of this entire horror is relatively close.”

Through this creative combination of reality and imagination, the crimes and horrors of those responsible for the war in Ukraine are laid out in a digestible manner. In fact, Denisova deliberately gave “The Gaaga” a comedic edge as a way to ease tension and prepare the audience to take in gruesome details.

“As a Ukrainian, I find it very important to keep talking about the genocide that is happening in Ukraine right now. But also for many of the people, it’s difficult to take more and more tragic information on a daily basis, so by making it a comedy, we find somewhat of a relief,” Denisova said.

Denisova does not only incorporate satirical humor through the story’s premise, but also in its details. For example, she includes dialogue surrounding a former KGB officer’s strong belief that Canadian geese have been spreading viruses, and some of the prisoners sing “Hotel California.” For Denisova, such scenes are a form of dark, wartime humor.

Nonetheless, there are still deeply tragic moments, which recount atrocities such as the Bucha massacre and the Mariupol theater airstrike. This careful balance of tragedy and comedy is at the very core of “The Gaaga,” and it is ultimately what makes the production so unique.

The balance of tragedy and comedy, fiction and fact are a reflection of the works that inspired Denisova. On one hand, she was inspired by the surreal, fantastical story of “Alice in Wonderland.” Much like this famous tale, “The Gaaga’s” plot is purposefully illogical, unreasonable, and very strange.

In contrast, Denisova spent time carefully studying the Nuremberg trials of World War II. The structure and setup of “The Gaaga”’s trial scenes were largely based on this globally significant event.

While imagination provides comedy, the character whose imagination audiences follow conveys tragedy — most poignantly through her young age.

“I think war through children’s eyes is always something very shocking,” Denisova said.

She shared that her writing process entailed reading the diaries of the children in Mariupol. As a result, Denisova left her teenage protagonist unnamed to make the play relatable to all children facing the tragedies of war.

Fittingly, the actress who plays “The Girl” is a Ukrainian refugee herself. Taisiia “Taya” Fedorenko fled Kyiv in February of 2022 and now lives in the United States, where she recently graduated high school and will now pursue a bachelor’s degree at The New School.

“The Gaaga” premiered in Poland in February, exactly one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Four months later, the production’s U.S. premiere took place in Cambridge, Mass. “The Gaaga” has found a home right in the heart of Harvard Square; it runs at Beat Brew Hall on Brattle Street.

Those who frequent this popular beer hall will be surprised to find it temporarily converted into a bomb shelter for the set of the play. The set juxtaposes children’s toys with shattered windows and collapsed walls, contributing effectively to the plot’s tragic depiction of war.

Denisova said that she thought Cambridge audiences would be perfect for this unique genre.

“Sasha has been walking around Harvard and Cambridge and just felt how connected the people of this area could potentially be to this piece,” interpreter Darya Denisova shared.

Sasha Denisova adapted the genre to her newfound American audience by adding more music cues and small numbers.

“I hope all jokes and all the little bits are going to work and speak to the audience,” she said.

“The Gaaga” runs at Beat Brew Hall in Cambridge, Mass. from June 2-18; additionally, performances will stream live online from June 8-18.

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