RavenExploring the unknowable boundaries
Performance inspired by the poetry of Oleh Lysheha
PRESS IN KYIV:
VIRLANA TKACZ: RETURN TO LYSHEHA
The production was under an hour, but that was long enough for us to experience the synesthesia of this show. Equally essential are text, music and design -- intentionally minimal, to highlight the interplay of light and shadow and allow for video and image projection. These elements blend with the performances of the actors, with their movements, voice and the space. Together, they create a single work of art, both comprehensible and full of deep hidden meaning.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Raven is the Magical and masterful way the poetic text has been transformed into stage reality. If I had to provide examples of the most organic translations from one form of art into another, Virlana Tkacz’s theatrical “re-readings” of modern poetry would certainly be on that list.
The director studied both theatre and literature. This probably explains her interest in literary texts that are not plays. Virlana Tkacz’s taste in literature is evident from the list of writers she has staged: Lesia Ukrainka, Pavlo Tychyna, Les Kurbas (fragments from his diaries), Natalka Bilotserkivets, and Ludmyla Taran. And then there is Oleh Lysheha – a poet many consider one of the most interesting and mysterious today.
Before Raven<.i> she created three productions using this poet’s texts: Virtual Souls (1996-97) and Flight of the White Bird (1997-99), with Buryat actors that used parts of Lysheha’s “Swan.” These productions premiered at La MaMa in New York and then performed at the Buryat National Theatre and at a festival of experimental theatre in Kyiv. In 2003 Yara also created a performance based entirely on Lysheha’s “Swan” at La MaMa and at Harvard University.
Evidence of Yara's special “relationship” between theatre and literature is the “experimental” approach to translation developed by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps. Taking on a translation, they don’t simply explicate the content into another language, but aim to create a “language that would work well on stage, be understood without footnotes.” To achieve this, they translate using a stage technique that includes “reading each text back and forth, adding and changing words out loud till it sounds ‘just right.’” (1) Perhaps thanks to this unique method, their translations of Ukrainian poetry are considered some of the best today and have received a number of translation prizes.
Folklore is an important element of Virlana Tkacz’s theatre, together with literature and music. The director often turns to several different national traditions. Raven includes the music of the contemporary Ukrianian composer Alla Zagaykeych, as well as Albanian prayer motifs and Appalachian songs performed by Aurelia Shrenker and Eva Salinas Primack. The varied music is not simply eclectic, but becomes unified through its relationship to the archaic.
Virlana Tkacz is interested in the deepest and most universal elements of folklore -- what unites traditions that at first glance seem totally unrelated. Often, this involves attempts by various cultures in their own unique ways (with their own particular sounds, rhythms and melodies of language) to approach the essential existential questions -- the meaning of life, the secrets of love, hate, death and birth. These questions resound in each culture, although of course, no culture has the ultimate answer.
Yara Arts Group itself is multicultural. The actors are mostly Americans of various cultural heritages. They usually work with artists from other countries; in Ukriane they have worked with traditional singers such as Mariana Sadovska and Nina Matvienko.
Raven is an international project that was created in Ukraine with the support of Fulbright and includes Yara actor Andrew Colteaux, who performed in English, and three Ukrainian actors: Larysa Rusnak (from the Franko National Theatre) Victoria Shupikova (from the Pasika Theatre Center) and Mykola Shkaraban (an actor and director who has worked with Yara since the early 1990s).
Oleh Lysheha’s poem was not chosen because to the story line. Although there are several narrative-like lines linked to the atmosphere and the main character, the narrative of the poetic text of “Raven” is not obvious on the surface -- at first. I would venture to suggest that what draws Virlana Tkacz to Lysheha is his orchestration of the “archaic.”
People who read Lysheha’s texts can confirm that he is most interested in the archaic and its relationship to universal concepts. It is no wonder that he employs archetypes, as well as the elements: fire, water and air. Lysheha also considers clay and snow to be elemental.
Like all fables, the poem “Raven” is concerned with the presence of death: from the moment the apocalyptic silhouette of the raven appears in the window of the Lavra monastery (Chest pressed against the glass../Squashed into it as if the sky had fallen..) to the final moment when the two friends return from the forest (the wife of one has recently passed away) and this “wise bird without pity” rests on the chest of the narrator.
Volodymyr Dibrova correctly points out that death is not an oppressive force here, but rather implies a “positive” change. (2) When it first appears, the raven is a mystical creature that arouses an unspecified fear in the main character (called “the man who meets the raven” in the show). By the end, the man is free of this fear and only feels pride for this creature “who has flown all the way here, /From somewhere way beyond, /Where Biblical beasts roam free.”
This change – as well as other fine gradations of feelings – are conveyed very clearly. As mentioned, music is very involved in evoking the emotional atmosphere. This production of Raven must be seen, since it is impossible to describe in words this theatre piece where the play of light, shadows, music and movement are so essential.
Audiences that understand both Ukrainian and English are the most adequate receptors for this production of Raven although most Ukrainian-speakers will be able to follow it, since fragments of the poem are repeated in both languages. Before the show, the audience is also asked to read the full text of Oleh Lysheha’s poem that is printed in the program. (The poem is not easy to read quickly and requires a slow meditative line-by-line reading).
For the audience that speaks only Ukrainian, the show can be an interesting and unforgettable adventure that is both intellectual and emotional. You discover you do not have to understand a language to experience it as a wonderful melody.
1 Tkacz, Virlana. “Poetry as Text for Theatre” In a Different Light: Bilingual Anthology of Ukrainian Literature as Performed by Yara Arts Group. Lviv: Sribne Slovo, 2008.
Original Ukrainian text of this review
Yara Arts Group
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