By Jordan Cohen


Losing a city and finding glimmers of peace.






Leaving Kiev, Mila Levine’s pared-down, one-woman show about growing up Jewish in the titular Ukrainian city, is Ms. Levine’s first theatrical work. Levine has enjoyed a fruitful career as a singer-songwriter, and according to her bio, her songs include Russian, Gypsy, and Yiddish hits. It is not surprising, then, that this production’s only prop is an acoustic guitar, of which Levine makes fine use of twice throughout the 30-minute show. In the first instance, Levine sings in Russian with schoolgirl longing for her music teacher, who “makes her cares float away” as he lectures on Beethoven, Bach, and Bizet. The second time Levine picks up her guitar she sings wistfully about home – Kiev – a place wrought with complication for a Jewish girl in the Soviet Union. As Levine puts it, the “institutionalized anti-Semitism” of the USSR marked many of her experiences.


Levine leads us through her adolescent life, first as a small child ice-skating in the park, puzzled when a new friend flings the ethnic slur “szhid” in her direction. We learn about the time her best friend, out of nowhere, calls her an “old stinking Jew” and abandons her because of her family’s heritage. This all leads Mila to question what she was ashamed of most: being Jewish, being ashamed of being Jewish, or lying about being Jewish, which she does on more than one occasion to get by. But it isn’t only anti-Semitism that haunts young Mila.  We meet her harsh, derisive piano teacher who laughs at her every foible, and we watch as her love for her music teacher goes unrequited. But in the end, after it’s announced that her family would be immigrating to America, we witness Mila come to terms with herself and her troubles when all of her friends, even those who had previously abandoned her, turn out to wish her well in her new life.


Levine not only tells us her stories, but also acts them out before our eyes, distinguishing each character with commendable physical and vocal clarity, though transitions in and out of the characters are somewhat choppy. The best moments of the production, which is billed as a comedy, are the whimsical ones – Levine daydreaming about shopping for boots with her imaginary sisters (doesn’t everyone?), wishing and hoping for just one kiss from her music teacher and later fantasizing that her music teacher has come to see her off to America. It is in these moments that Levine, the actress, seems to break free from any chains born out of inexperience, and much credit likely goes to director Mary Catherine Donnelly for helping Levine flesh it all out.


After seeing Leaving Kiev, I was left with some questions: Will Mila and her family preserve their Ukrainian and Jewish heritage after emigrating from their home country? What will Mila’s life be like in the US? Will she continue to experience anti-Semitism outside of Ukraine, or be haunted by memories of the prejudice she faced as a child? Fortunately, as indicated on the MITF website, Leaving Kiev is the first part of a multi-part performance piece, so I am looking forward to continuing the journey.


Leaving Kiev (One last performance: Sunday, 11/15 at 4:15pm)


Midtown International Theatre Festival/Jewel Box Theatre

312 W. 36th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, New York, NY


For tickets visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10047534 or purchase at the door.