by Michael Bracken
When’s the last time you attended “an immersive guerrilla folk opera”? At the risk of sounding like I’ve led a sheltered life, I have to admit Counting Sheep, at 3 Legged Dog in lower Manhattan, was my first. It delivers as advertised on the immersive folk opera front. Its guerrilla credentials are a little shaky, but that’s probably for the best.
Counting Sheep takes place in a large hall, with bleachers to the sides and a long table cutting much of the room in half. The table actually has a bare wooden center, which is used as a runway at the top of the show. If you’re at the table (pricier seats), you’ll be fed some pierogies and other Ukrainian delicacies. But don’t get too comfortable. No matter where you’re located, you’ll soon be standing.
The show begins with a violinist playing a folksy, plaintive ballad. He’s joined by other musicians and singers. Three huge sheets on three walls have projections on them (photos and text). And soon the audience is on its feet, navigating the room, sometimes guided by the performers and sometimes not.
All songs and spoken (very few) words are in Ukrainian. There’s a parade with signs in Ukrainian and English and English writings on the three large projections. We’re at Maidan Square in the midst of the Maidan Revolution, which took place in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, in 2013-2014.
Fueled by Ukraine’s youth, especially its students, the revolution succeeded in ousting Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych.
It’s not clear exactly when Counting Sheep takes place, but it doesn’t really need to be. Its creators, Mark Marczyk and Marichka Marczyk, seem more concerned with experiential authenticity than factual accuracy. And they are more than halfway successful in achieving that goal.
The sense one gets of Maidan is that of the intoxication the Ukrainians were feeling on the verge of victory over Russian-leaning Yanukovych regime. Freedom was so close they could smell it, feel it, taste it. But how do you express that freedom?
You can dance; you can sing; you can jump for joy. And you can get the audience to join you. Which is exactly what Mark Marczyk, Marichka Marczyk, Dmytro Nechepurenko, Eli Camilo, Jaash Singh, Michael Louis Johnson, Nathan Dell-Vandenberg, Oskar Lambarri, Tamar Ilana, Stephania Woloshyn and Volodymyr Bedzvin do. In addition to being pleasing performers, they are skilled seducers. Without being overbearing or too insistent, they lure audience members into being a part of the action, especially the dancing. Their energy is contagious.
There’s even a wedding, based very loosely on the experience of the Marczyks, who fell in love at Maidan Square but got married later.
Even the most peaceful of revolutions is not without some violence. At its most intense, over four days in 2014, the Maidan Revolution saw 113 lives lost. Counting Sheep can’t and doesn’t ignore this part of the revolution. We the audience, are pushed back by Berkut, the brutal Ukrainian Special Force, and reminded that death is a frequent byproduct of revolt. But these downer moments are overwhelmed by the celebratory. It’s completely understandable: it’s more fun to be immersed in frolicking than fighting, but the imbalance decreases the authenticity of the experience.
Vita Tzykun’s set gives the performers and audience plenty of room to move around in while still keeping them close to each other. The placement of the video screens/sheets makes them visible from just about everywhere. The conundrum is whether to watch the screens or the live action, but that’s hardly the fault of the stage designer.
Kevin Newbury gets high-octane interactive performances from his game troupe and displays an innate sense of crowd dynamics. Counting Sheep works well as a euphoric party in the context of a crusade for socio-political change, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to give that crusade historical context or even define what the crusade is.
Counting Sheep. Through Sunday, December 17, at the 3LD Theatre (80 Greenwich Street). 85 minutes, no intermission. www.countingsheeprevolution.com
Photos: Mati Bardosh Gelman