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A Lesson in Resistance
"1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan & the Dogs"
June 9 -25, 2017

La MaMa E.T.C. (Ellen Stewart Theatre), 66 East Fourth Street
Presented by La MaMa E.T.C. and Yara Arts Group
Thur.- Sat. @ 8:30 PM; Sun. @ 4:00 PM
$25 General Admission; $20 Students/Seniors; Limited $10 (10 tickets available for $10 for every performance on first come first serve basis, advance sale recommended)
Box office (212) 352-3101, www.La MaMa.org/tychyna
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett June 10, 2017

It is a truism to say that our present world is in turmoil. Most of us are reeling from news about bombings, civil wars, millions of refugees migrating over the face of the earth, while fanaticism, nationalism, racism, xenophobia is grabbing the psyche of young and old. And the sense of political impotence alternates with rage about signs of backsliding into tyrannical modes of governance propped up by corruption and cronyism. However, a fighting spirit has also emerged among peoples. The present production at La MaMa presented by the Yara Arts Group, conceived and directed by Yara’s Artistic Director Virlana Tkacz, has brought together Ukrainian and American performing artists that take us through a compendium of political activism with music, movement, poetry and video imagery.

Serhiy Zhadan performing song inspired by Timothy Snyder's book "On Tyranny." Photo by Waldemart Klyuzko. Behind: Bob Holman with Zhadan & the Dogs. Photo by Waldemart Klyuzko.

"Back to the Past…History is starting Now..." These are phrases from the lyrics of contemporary Ukrainian poet and rock musician Serhiy Zhadan for one of the musical interludes in the piece that encapsulates one hundred years of Ukrainian revolutionary experience, Stalinist tyranny, Soviet occupation, Russian invasion, and present civil war. The entire performance piece encompasses texts by Ukrainian poets Pavlo Tychyna (1891-1967) and Hryhoriy Skovoroda (1722-1794) as well as music and lyrics by Serhiy Zhadan & the Dogs, his Kharkiv based group of six rock musicians; Bob Holman, the American poet collaborator and translator participates as a performer and provides additional lyrics, inspired by eminent historian Timothy D. Snyder’s 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The ensemble of five actors (Marina Celander, Sean Eden, Darien Fiorino, Rob Feldman and Maria Pleshkevich) from the Yara Arts Group, a resident company of La MaMa E.T.C. plus Alexandra Koval, an actress from Kyiv are accompanied by Julian Kytasty, one of the world’s premier player of the bandura, a Ukrainian lute-harp. Director Virlana Tkacz translated the texts by Tychyna and Skovoroda together with Wanda Phipps and Bob Holman. She arranged, choreographed, and crafted the poetic texts into astounding scenes of powerful images that juxtaposed the tragic trajectory of the Ukrainian people from its agrarian roots through the series of rebellions against political perfidies committed by Russian and Soviet hegemony.

Bob Holman gives prologue in the lobby.
Alexandra Koval recites a Tychyna poem.

In the lobby, before the house is opened, Bob Holman gives the audience a rather amusing simple history lesson by way of a millinery exhibit representing the nine different governments in the Ukraine from 1917-1919. The rapid change of ruling cliques is shown by a change of hat, until Soviet rule is firmly entrenched. This "elementary" overview is provided as a foundation; by way of a conclusion, Bob Holman exhorts us "to go on into the theater" with his own quizzical poem, "Tyranny of the Poem." Then Alexandra Koval recites a Tychyna poem in the original Ukrainian to musical accompaniment, after which Serhiy Zhadan presents a poem of his own with an energy that conveys a strong spirit of resistance—he comes from the embattled Luhansk region and has been imprisoned for his protest actions. Thus primed we are invited into the theater.

Julian Kytasty plays the banmdura. Photo by Victoria Landar.

The light picks out a grey-haired man in a black hooded cardigan embracing a beautiful large bandura, and he begins to strum and sing softly. Another light picks out a young woman kneeling on the ground with a book—she begins to read. Five figures, all dressed in simple black clothes (costumes by Keiko Obremski), stand with their faces against a wall, as though awaiting execution. And then the action breaks loose. Text, movement, projected images bring the space to life while the musician remains a constant quiet presence on the side. The poems become the source of experiences that the actors, two women and three men, bring to life through movement and in dialogue, sometimes questioning, sometimes marveling; there is depiction of love and of violence, of loss and of recovery.


Serhiy Zhadan (center) & the Dogs. Photo by Evgeniy Maloletka.
Maria Pleshkevich. Photo by Waldemart Klyuzko.

The simple set of two movable wall units, designed by Watoku Ueno, with interesting side lighting designed by Jeff Nash, and video projections by Waldemart Klyusko allows for atmospheric variety that underscores the human drama of each poetic scene. The wall opens for the musical interludes by Zhadan & the Dogs (with fantastic trumpeter Artem Dmytrychenkov and trombonist Oleksander Merenchuk) which break into the scenes, sometimes with shocking effect. Zhadan sings his rock lyrics in hiphop style with a fierce energy that befits rebellion —I thought of the revolutionary poet Mayakowski who recited his poetry in the 1920s in a form of hiphop style, as translator/poet Paul Smith told me once. One song with its repeated refrain "Znay voii prava"["Know your rights"] that Zhadan sings in Ukrainian and in English made me realize the curious semantic closeness of "prava"[rights] and "pravda"[truth]. As we struggle right now in the US to distinguish between "fact" and "alternative fact" among statements of propaganda, falsehood, disinformation, and misinformation from our increasingly autocratic leadership that confuses reality with Reality TV, and as we worry what rabbit hole we are taken down, we do well to think of the lessons on tyranny that our past century provided us. This magnificent performance encourages us to confront the ugliness with vigor and celebrate the beauty that human beings are capable of in the midst of tragedy and error. In our present climate of wall building and retrograde isolationism such artistic collaborations as Yara Arts Group has undertaken and La MaMa E.T.C. has supported for more than fifty years are to be valued as a boon.

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