“When did they sow this grass – yesterday? / today? –” So begins Oleh Lysheha’s poem Raven, as well as Yara Arts Group’s play of the same name. The poem rises and falls through the experiences, and indeed the imagination, of its speaker. On stage, this is realized through a protagonist/narrator who guides the audience through his life-changing experience of encountering a dying raven outside his window and the journey it leads him on or of which it is a part. The poem resonates with a dark beauty, using language to evoke vivid images. When these images are realized on the stage, however, something of the power of the text is lost. The tale becomes too literal, losing its metaphorical beauty. The difficulty for this piece is caused by the fact that it is trying to take the poetic and stage it in a literal fashion. Some of the magic of the original poem, included in the program, is diminished in this staging of it. The text still rings through as meaningful and poignant, highlighted by Aurelia Shrenker and Eva Salina Primack’s songs and Alla Zagaykevych's electronic music, but the physical actions on stage often leave much to be desired. These physical actions can seem random or as though they are trying too hard, making their meanings obscure.
Much of the movement-based performance comes across as rough and as though it does not necessarily belong in the piece. In addition, the upstage projections, captured either by a small makeshift screen center stage or a larger white curtain against the back wall of the playing space, seem superfluous and even at times distracting. The narration states where the characters are meant to be; there is no need to depict the settings in so much detail. This seems a direct counterpoint to the minimalist use of props, in which three buckets, a broom, and a desk stand in for myriad items in the world of the play. There is a disconnect between the realistic atmosphere suggested by the projections and the world of the imagination evoked by the text and the props.
The play is not traditional narrative drama, nor is it meant to be, but the work does tell some sort of a story. The piece continually feels as though it is going to reach some sort of a climax, but when it seems to, during an extended sequence in a forest, the moment seems disappointing. The strongest parts of Raven are its simplest; when people on stage just talk to the audience or to one another. Heightening the “action” of the play does nothing to make it more piercing.
Both the music and the use of the Ukrainian voice to highlight important words and phrases are elements which are used well. The latter is included sparingly, but something about the speaker’s tone, particularly when paired with this particular musical soundtrack, acts to enhance the melancholy tone of the overall piece. The performances are all fine, though one wishes that there was more of a sense of exploration with these words. Why is this man narrating this seemingly insignificant moment of his life? What is his feeling toward the painter he sees and with whom he attempts to connect? What is Ivan searching for in the dead of the forest? I believe seeds for answers to these questions are available in the original poem but have yet to be translated fully on to the stage.
Despite these issues, there is great symbolic value to what is seen on stage. It is a compelling experiment as to how theater can attempt to encompass the poetic. Perhaps finding a verse of the body and of the stage setting is not the only solution. When Raven highlights the poetry of words it is at its finest. In these moments, it is touching. When the narrator speaks of the actual raven’s suffering, for example, it can nearly move a spectator to tears. It is for these moments that the piece is worth seeing–or, perhaps more precisely, worth listening to.