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Beate Hein Bennett
March 10 – 19, 2023
Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street (betw. 2nd Ave. and Bowery), New York, NY
Presented by La MaMa E.T.C. and Yara Arts Group
Thurs – Sat at 7 PM, Sun. at 2 PM
Tickets: Gen. Adm. $30, Students/Seniors $25, Box Office: 646-430-5374
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, March 11, 2023
the historical 1929 production
Since the invasion of Putin’s war machine into the Ukraine on February 24, 2022 with its horrendous destruction of civilian life and infrastructure, the images of this destruction have invaded the daily news cycles in the US and the consciousness of Americans. So it was no surprise that the official opening of “Radio 477!” drew a large audience to La Mama, not only local New Yorkers but also ex-pat Ukrainians—there is a longtime well established Ukrainian community in the East Village with a side street between E. 6th and E.7th Street being named Taras Shevchenko Place after the 19th century Ukrainian poet. The Yara Arts Group makes its home in an Ukrainian arts center on 306 E.11th Street.
Photo by Theo Cote
“Radio 477!” is a special work of theater. It is the re-imagination of a jazz musical revue that was performed in 1929 at the Berezil Theatre in Kharkiv, a booming industrial city in the 1920s. Photographs and programs from the original production have survived but script and music had been presumed lost or destroyed. The original creators, the director Les Kurbas and the composer Yuliy Meitus, along with many other artists became the victims of Stalin’s purges beginning in 1933. “Hello, this is Radio 477!” (the original title) was staged in the popular modernistic Constructivist style, similar to Erwin Piscator’s 1920s Dadaist revues in Berlin that parodied the mechanical aspects of an industrial society. (In America Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine” adopted a similar style.) Virlana Tkacz, the founder/director of Yara Arts Group came upon the original musical score while doing research in Kharkiv before the invasion. Most of the script was lost but a list of the numbers could be reconstructed from programs, and the photographs from the original Berezil production provided visual information of the set, costumes and performance style. In November 2021 Ms. Tkacz first workshopped “Radio 477!” in Kharkiv with a group of Ukrainian performing artists and musicians. The renowned Ukrainian poet/rock star/novelist and anti-war activist, Serhiy Zhadan composed the script for the present production incorporating fragments from the original text, including Maik Johanson’s lyrics “Kharkiv, Kharkiv”. Anthony Coleman, inspired by Yuliy Meitus 1929 score, composed the music (with fleeting echoes of Kurt Weill’s 1920s “Mahagonny” orchestration). Virlana Tkacz directed the American cast in a Brechtian style revue that mixes commentary on present and past political conditions with dance and song. Some of the text is spoken and sung in Ukrainian, not all lines are translated into English, presumably to emphasize the specificity of the local history. However, some of the scenes implicitly seem to relate to New York, e.g. references to Chinese gang fights and police bullying and incompetence. (Was there a Chinatown in Kharkiv?)
Photo by Theo Cote
In the large space of the Ellen Stewart Theatre a dominant original set element is replicated: two large arcs lit up with hundreds of light bulbs frame the playing space; the lit up arcs are first only seen through a scrim on which photographs of the original production are projected. Towards the end of the show the scrim curtain is pulled back to reveal a spiral of lit arcs receding towards the back of the theater. Margaret Peebles designed the ingenious light architecture with projections by Hoa Bai; set and graphics are by Waldemart Klyusko with Evhen Kopiov, costumes by Keiko Obremski, and sound design by Marek Soltis. The band of musicians, led by Anthony Coleman on piano, is present on the side of the performance space with Sir Frank London on trumpet, Marty Ehrlich (clarinet), Paul Brantley (cello), Erica Mancini (accordion), Anna Abondolo/Hannah Dunton (bass) and James Paul Nadien (drums). After the opening performance, DJ Daria Kolomiec, placed upstage center, spun rock music to accompany the special poetry reading by Serhiy Zhadan (in Ukrainian) and Reginald Dwayne Betts (in English translation).
As pre-show in the lobby, an actor tells the standing audience about Kharkiv during a virtual “walking tour.”—I am not sure why this could not have been done more effectively with projections of the referenced locales (in past and present conditions) with the audience seated in the theatre. The original 1929 production in the Berezil Theatre was broadcast live over loudspeakers to the central square in Kharkiv to accommodate overflow audiences and to encourage them to jazz dance along—a kind of interactive theater envisioned by the avant-garde at the time, and practiced later by such troupes as The Living Theatre in America.
An ensemble of nine performers sings, dances, and comments through a collage of short sketches about life in Kharkiv: encounters among people in different city locales—Main Street, Shopping Center (with a jewelry store and pickpockets), Central Park, the City Theatre. The Radio Host, Fish announces events with information “from the ground” by Reporter Porky. These “events” in turn are trivial and absurd, or ominous and horrendous. Time has become fluid and moves between the 1920s when Kharkiv was USSR’s exemplary industrial city and 2022 when it is bombed into a ghost town. The performers are: George Drance, Noah Firth, Silvana Gonzalez, Akiko Hiroshima Bob Holman, Petro Ninovskyi Oksana Orban, Lesya Verba, and Susan Hwang as Fish, the Radio Host. Under the direction of Ms. Virlana Tkacz and with choreography by Shigeko Sara Suga, the cast quick-changes from absurd to straight, from non-sense verse to lyrical song and tender moments. The 80 minute non-stop performance is high octane.
As I looked at the final image of light arcs spiraling towards the back wall washed in red light, I thought about how each generation spirals through acts of creation followed by acts of destruction….And yet, as Beckett would say: “I can’t go on I must go on”…and so does theater, poetry, art—Life.
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