By Eric J. Grimm
As unrest in Crimea surges, Yara Arts Group’s “comedy/musical/historical epic-in-an-hour” Captain John Smith Goes to Ukraine, playing now at La MaMa, seeks to entertain, educate, and perhaps provide some catharsis. The show’s current run is, unfortunately, well timed to coincide with international atrocities that beg for a wide range of perspectives and understanding. The play’s loose structure allows it to address the troubling situation in Ukraine, but it also makes it feel hastily assembled. This post-modern history lesson has visual and sonic flourish to spare, which makes the rest of the production so lightweight in comparison.
Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman takes on the role of John Smith, weaving original poetry into this abridged account of the first section of John Smith’s memoirs. The latter portion of his autobiography details the far more popular narrative of Smith’s time in Virginia where he encountered Pocahontas. Disney’s take on the story is lightly parodied in the beginning of the show, with Holman’s Smith admiring the handsomeness of the Disney cartoon version of John Smith. If it sounds a little too obvious, it is because much of the comedy in the show often is. Holman and performance artist Susan Hwang, who plays all of John Smith’s love interests (though I struggle to remember any individual character she plays), toss out tired self-referential jokes and sing Hwang’s forgetful original songs with a sense of unease. The first floor theater of La MaMa has been a prime setting for experimental theater for forty years, but this production feels too safe and flat to be experimental. It’s more like a sixth-generation VHS mash-up of sketches from Portlandia and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. You often wish Hwang and Holman would firmly step out of the box and go crazy with the story and its past and present implications.
This is a shame because there are technical elements of the show to admire. Throughout the show, bandurist Julian Kytasty plays and sings beautiful Ukrainian epic songs that are so structured and effective in comparison to much of the throwaway bits from the narrative portion of the show. Kytasty is a comforting presence, nimbly picking at his bandura as he sings in a mournful tone. If anything in the show can help us understand Ukrainian history and empathize with current artists and activists, it is Kytasty’s music. Another fine element of the production is its use of projected images. Scans of illustrations from a rare copy of Smith’s memoirs, courtesy of the New York Public Library, look fantastic as they are projected on a large screen behind the performers. The illustrations do all of the narrative heavy lifting while the script often meanders. In both cases, the multimedia approach is warranted.
Given the strong visual and musical components, it is frustrating that the rest of the show does not showcase the other performers at their best. Hwang, an otherwise energetic accordionist, lacks a sense of urgency. Her songs seem like assignments rather than labors of love. Holman’s groundbreaking work in New York poetry makes his performance as John Smith a bit of a head-scratcher. He has a rich voice, but his delivery is stagnant and suggestive of an excited high school English teacher rather than a complex character. I was so desperate for the two of them to go toe to toe on issues of British colonialism or convey the tragedy of brief encounters but they play it safe, making the short running time drag. It’s clear to see that director Virlana Tkacz has assembled an ambitious mixed media project with honorable intentions, but the result is a bit of a kamikaze. This deliberately plotted show needs either better narrative structure and trained actors or a much weirder and less desperate approach.
Captain John Smith Goes to Ukraine is playing at La MaMa from February 27- March 9, 2014. For more information and tickets, visit http://lamama.org/first-floor-theatre/capt-john-smith-goes-to-ukraine/.