Counting Sheep

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Counting Sheep is immersive theater at its very best. Billed as a “guerrilla  folk-punk opera,” the work is about the 2013–14 Ukrainian Revolution in Maidan Square, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. And it is into the arms of this revolution (also known as the Revolution of Dignity), as it spreads from the youth to Ukrainian people of all ages, that the members of the audience are thrust.

Early iterations of this folk opera included a thick play script. The script was tossed. What was left was theater: soundscape, inventive use of set, music, lighting, instruments, song, chorus, masks, even food. Where words are spoken, they are in the Ukrainian you would have heard on Maidan Square, had you been there on any of those bitter but also exultant days. The only English in the play is in video-news clips projected onto the walls; they provide the outlines of the revolution but little else. Like the participants who were carried on the shoulders of events larger than themselves in 2013 and 2014, the audience experiences a visceral rather than a complete or detailed picture of the story into which it has been swept up.

 Nathan Deli-Vandenberg (left) and a masked Tamar Ilana in  Counting Sheep . Top: Mark Marczyk on the violin (center) is surrounded by the actor-musicians of  Counting Sheep.  Photographs by Mati Bardosh.

Nathan Deli-Vandenberg (left) and a masked Tamar Ilana in Counting Sheep. Top: Mark Marczyk on the violin (center) is surrounded by the actor-musicians of Counting Sheep. Photographs by Mati Bardosh.

Three things, it would seem, were required, then, to speak the burning truth of the Maidan revolution for its creators, Mark Marczyk and Marichka Marczyk, who were themselves participants, met there, and married. First, it must be told primarily in its own language and voice. Hence the cast of 11 uses the Ukrainian language, lyrics, and folk music as they play revolutionaries and various other characters. Second, more than words (the approach of the mind), the work must grow out of and depend primarily upon the senses, and thus the theatrical elements mentioned above. Finally, and most important of all, it must place the audience not outside but inside the action of the revolution itself.   

The production begins on a warm note, on the eve of the revolution, with many in the audience seated, unsuspecting, at a very long but also wide table with Ukrainian foods before them and the actors urging the audience members (in Ukrainian, of course) to eat. Projected clips (in English) talk of government corruption and then of the president’s rejection of free trade agreements with the European Economic Community. This is the deal-breaker for the students, who are later joined by others. It is unthinkable, to the young protesters, that a democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, is steering Ukraine back into the arms of Russia.  

Early on, Mark Marczyk walks the length of the dinner table, fingers flying on his violin (he is a virtuoso violinist of the first order). Soon, however, two figures are poised against one another, also on the table, the audience still seated around it.  One of them is in the fatigues of riot police clearly sent in by the government, and the other is young, a student. They press against each other in a mute standoff. The revolution has begun. Yellow hardhats are distributed to everyone in the audience.

This is the way it goes, is it not? One is enjoying a meal with family or friends, only half ignoring the news on the television.  But then, violence shatters the bubble: the audience is shooed away from the table.  The table itself is dismantled and reassembled into barricades. Some of the audience on one side of the room is taught a Ukrainian protest song. “The tire was burning, the barricade was built,” they sing in Ukrainian. Soon they dance to it. The instruments pound. Emotions swing. The same huge tablecloth on which the food was initially laid out is the centerpiece of a joyous wedding and, not long after, a shroud.

Set design by Vita Tzykun, sound design by Eric Southern, and video design by Greg Emetaz enthrall with the outrageous but controlled chaos of the production. Kevin Newbury has provided masterly direction of the highly experimental piece. The musicians, members of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra of Toronto, where the production originated, are the heart and center of the Marczyks’ vivid creation.

For all of its brilliant chaos, energy, irreverence, and passion, Counting Sheep is a work of great delicacy because it wrestles with the fundamental question: how does one convey truths larger than oneself, larger even than the sum of the lives involved?

Counting Sheep plays through Dec. 17 at the 3LD Art and Tech Center (80 Greenwich St.; there are nearby subways stops at Rector, Wall, and Broad streets and the World Trade Center). Evening performances are at 8 p.m.; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets (from $20–$62.57) and information, visit 3ldnyc.org.

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