While there is a narrative thread here (and "thread" is an important symbol in Stones, revealed in spindles, unspooling balls of yarn, poetry about the DNA helix), it doesn't necessarily drive the production, in part because the story is told through lyrics and poetry in two languages a monolingual English-speaker will have no luck deciphering. (No sur- or subtitles are offered, though Cecilia Arana, as Moon, does offer the occasional translation, just enough to keep the English speakers on track.)
Instead the dramatic impact of the work comes through the sub-cognitive power of the voices of the mothers and daughters (Nina Matvienko, Kenzhegul Satybaldieva, Ainura Kachkynbek kyzy, and Tonia Matvienko) singing melodies our pop-inflected ears have never heard -- haunting, minor-key, odd-rhythmed -- underscored by Kyrgyz instruments and the crystalline beauty of the Ukrainian bandura and staged on a serpentine raised platform with simple clean movements. Add in the antics of The Debutante Hour (not only presenting their strong voices but also doing that while playing drums, guitar, and accordion), and the hour-long performance builds what good theater should always build: an alternate world that allows us to re-learn and reflect upon the great questions at the core of our being human.
The title refers to stone figures scattered throughout southern Russia, Ukraine, southern Siberia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Over three thousand years old, these statues are thought to be burial monuments, but given the distance between the cultures that produced them and ours, they function more like ghosts, hints of something once tied to us but now bearing clues only if we stop long enough to notice and read them. They make an apt title for this delicate, evocative work by Virlana Tkacz and Yara Arts Group, which hints at the great stories that still inhabit us if only we let ourselves slip into the strangeness of our past in order to more clearly see whatever future lies before us.
Gorgeous Ukrainian and Kyrgyz traditional songs performed by women with exquisite voices, accompanied elegantly by ancient instruments, as well as stunning changes of tone with the contemporary duo "The Debutante Hour," combine to create a beautiful soundscape through the simple story of two daughters leaving their mothers and losing their cultural identities in the process. Scythian Stones is unlike anything I've heard before.
The voices of Nina Matvienko and Tonia Matvienko (these performers are actually mother and daughter from Ukraine) and Kenzhegul Satybaldieva and Ainura Kachkynbek kyzy (from Kyrgyzstan) are what make this production so worth seeing. The way they are able to build tension vocally clearly comes from a place of deep connection to the songs being performed. An introduction to the play says that many of the pieces are actually wedding songs, although not used in that context in this piece. Whatever their actual meaning, they are very much felt in the moment and therefore easily applied to the mother and daughter relationships.
The two girls leave their mothers and go off to the city. The city turns out to be—or pulls them into—the underworld, where they are stripped of their traditions and turn to stone. Leading them on the underworld descent with "This Is The Underworld, Baby" are Susan Hwang and Maria Sonevytsky. The sharp shift in musical tone from the traditional pieces that soar to the upbeat songs that rock really clarifies that play's overall message by not making the traditional good and the cosmopolitan bad; rather both are really good, only one is familiar and the other seems to have gotten lost somewhere. We must admit that something is given up by having a motley culture, even if it is beautiful in its own way.
Directors Virlana Tkacz and Watoku Ueno really allow time to let the traditional way of life be simple, warm, and slow-moving, and then let it be broken by the bouncing rhythm and elaborate action of the city/underworld. The movement dynamics they've created fit. But, since the music is the real strength of this piece, it is unwaveringly the focal point. Ueno's zig-zagging set and effective design also help the journey develop; sheets fall and projections come on, totally covering that traditional world we were in previously.
Narration/translation provided by Cecilia Arana seems to function as a medium for the audience to relate, emphasizing the distance between the audience and the cultural world of the play. The translation often provides some important exposition...
See this play to hear some truly marvelous traditional Eastern European music.
One of the most striking aspects of the piece is the set and lighting designed by Watoku Ueno. The raised stage is shaped like a DNA helix to convey the passing of traditions as a parallel to the passing of genes. The stage gives the actors the opportunity to act on both higher and lower levels and creates a simultaneous separation and connection between the Kyrgyz and Ukrainian worlds…. One of the most stunning songs was Tonia singing to her mother, “You have had your time/To look at your own daughter/ Oh, you have already gazed at her.” Her voice resounds rebelliously throughout the theatre… The idea of tradition and its loss resonates with all viewers. As Tonia and Ainura let their hearts guide them away from their mothers, all of us have let our hearts lead us on roads from which no traveler returns, and yet have made it back.
This theatre piece combines traditional Ukrainian and Kyrgyz music and songs, with contemporary music, stenography, choreography. In addition to English, you can hear Ukrainian and Kyrgyz, but Scythian Stones can be understood by anyone because its themes touch everyone on the planet…. Only Nina Matvienko could so brilliantly and so meticulously perform the role of the Ukrainian mother – both in terms of her singing and her acting. Kenzhegul Satybaldieva, an actress from Kyrgyzstan trained in St Petersburg, is enthralling as she performs the part of the Kyrgyz mother.”
Yara Arts Group
306 East 11th St., #3B
New York, NY 10003 USA
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