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Theatre in Review: Counting Sheep (3LD Art & Technology Ctr)/Awake and Sing! (New Yiddish Rep)

Top: Photo: Mati Bardosh Gelman. Bottom: Gera Sandler, Mira Kessler. Photo: Pedro Hernandez.

The past week brought two separate exercises in non-English-speaking theatre, each of which is thoroughly accessible, even if one is rather more compelling than the other. Reading in advance about Counting Sheep, you might not use the adjectives featured in the previous sentence: It was created by Mark Marczyk and Marichka Marczyk, who, according to the press materials, "met and fell in love on Independence Square in Kyiv at the height of the Revolution of Dignity," the series of street protests that led to the ousting of the corrupt, pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych. You might be further bemused to learn that the show is billed as an "immersive Ukrainian guerrilla folk-opera" featuring Lemon Bucket Orkestra, "Toronto's infamous Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk super-band."

Put your fears aside. The air may be filled with talk about "resistance" these days, but the Marczyks have walked the walk and their highly inventive performance piece, staged with urgency and clarity by Kevin Newbury, is the closest most of us will ever get to being caught up in the tumult -- the noise, the confusion, and the electrifying energy -- of a government-shaking protest.

The audience enters a space at 3LD with risers on the sides and, in the middle, a couple of long tables conjoined by a kind of catwalk; these are for premium ticket holders, who are treated to a vegetarian Ukrainian meal. Projections on the wall detail the events that caused ordinary Ukrainians to take to the streets: Yanukovych's rejection of closer ties with the European Union (a popular proposal) in favor of Russia, followed by allegations of financial corruption and suppression of the press. As the meal ends, the protests begin. The dissidents march in, gathering up audience members, attaching banners and protest signs to a skeletal green tower. Video displays of the actual street protests cover the walls, along with news reports in English and Ukrainian.

The government responds forcefully as riot police appear and an actor pushes a kind of improvised bulldozer, symbolic of the thugs who were paid to infiltrate the protestors and drive them to violence. Tables and chairs are overturned and transformed into a blockade. Mock bricks are thrown. A young couple fall in love, and the man proposes to the woman in front of their cheering cohort. A man in a vest marked "Press" operates a live camera, broadcasting footage of the action to the four walls. When the barricade is set afire, video of the burning is projected onto the set and the actors unfurl red banners. The presence of music is constant, both in the rousing -- sometimes overwhelmingly loud -- band numbers and in some stunningly arranged choral singing.

Most emphatically not a play, Counting Sheep is a headfirst plunge into the experience of a people spontaneously pushing back against a government that, they have concluded, is betraying their interests. It's a cataract of simultaneous events -- music, confrontations, sign-painting, food (bowls of buckwheat are also available), marches, and cheering, among other things. The initially heady atmosphere dissipates as we learn that Yanukovych has fled the country for -- where else? -- Russia, and the Crimea is annexed by Russian troops, leading to the current political standoff.

The production may look simple, but it depends on the contributions of its designers. Vita Tzykun's set provides a flexible ground plan for all sorts of activities; despite the seeming chaos, the action is never crowded or cluttered. Eric Southern's lighting smartly draws our attention to where it is most needed -- a violinist rousing the crowd with a passionate solo, or the appearance of shield-bearing riot cops. Greg Emetaz's video design blankets the walls with documentary footage of the events in Ukraine, combined with the live camera feed mentioned above. The sound design, by Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Wolcott, includes news broadcasts and rousing speeches (not in English) by the cast members.

Counting Sheep ends in a death, the body wrapped in a cloth and covered with roses as it's carried out of the room, followed by projections that take account of the many fatalities. A tiny model cemetery is erected on a table and the projections remind us "The war is not over." Certainly not, but these intensely committed performers have shaken us out of our daily reality, making us wonder how much we would risk to challenge the status quo.

On another note entirely, the New Yiddish Rep, which had a big success a couple of seasons ago with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, takes on another American classic, Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! It is, on the face of it, a most likely choice: Odets' characters, most of them members of the embattled Berger family, are American Jews of the mid-1930s, the sort of people who might very well have still been speaking Yiddish at home. English creeps in at specific moments -- for example, when the restless, romantic Ralph Berger is on the phone with his girlfriend. Aunt Mimi, who runs a successful dress business, speaks in a mixture of English and Yiddish, a clear indication that she is more assimilated than the other members of her generation. And the default statement of Moe Axelrod, the one-legged former bootlegger and Berger family hanger-on -- "Don't make me laugh" -- is always rendered in English.

Still, the production falters, for two reasons. One has to do with language. Even though Yiddish sounds right at home in these characters' mouths, Odets' own brand of word music -- cauterizing wisecracks mixed with moonstruck idealism -- is sorely missed. (You can see it in the English surtitles, but the effect isn't the same.) I don't speak Yiddish, so it may very well be that Chaver Paver's adaptation finds an equivalent tone, but, to my ears, the original words are missed in a way that was never the case with the Yiddish adaptation of Death of a Salesman.

This may be because the Yiddish Salesman captured the drive of Miller's play, the sense that Willy Loman is losing his hold on reality, sliding toward a terrible end. Awake and Sing!, a portrait of a Depression-era family where every dream is mortgaged to the necessity of paying the rent, should vibrate with an underlying tension. Bessie, the matriarch, keeps an eye on every penny, ignoring her children's desires: She crushes Ralph's budding romance because she needs his salary, and she marries off the restless (and pregnant) Hennie to a well-meaning schlemiel in the name of respectability. Neither situation is sustainable, however, and in the climax the family is nearly blown apart -- with, Odets indicates, more upsets to come.

Such submerged, yet powerful, emotions are largely missing in this staging. Moshe Lobel's Ralph occasionally erupts into a genuine fury, but, much of the time, his characterization is listless; the same is true of Mira Kessler's Hennie, although she comes alive in her sexually charged exchanges with Gera Sandler, whose Moe Axelrod is the most successful performance here. Ronit Asheri's Bessie and Amy Coleman's Mimi have their moments, too, but the director, David Mandelbaum, never finds the momentum that will push this clan to the breaking point. Mandelbaum also plays Jacob, Bessie and Mimi's Marxist father, but he doesn't manage to pull off the powerful scene in which, deeply humiliated by Bessie, he makes a devastating decision that alters everyone's lives.

This production has its moments, among them Bessie cradling Mimi's fur coat, which she handles like a treasured pet, or Moe, provocatively putting his leg -- the artificial one -- on the table, just to get a rise out of Bessie. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes are fine period creations, and she draws nice distinctions between Bessie and Hennie's everyday wear and Mimi's rather more expensive wardrobe. Jesse Freedman's sound design makes good use of Yiddish popular songs and radio broadcasts of the period, including a commercial that urges listeners to be modern and purchase their gefilte fish in a glass jar. But we had a couple of very strong productions of Awake and Sing! in the past decade -- one at Lincoln Center Theater, the other produced by the National Asian American Theater Company -- and this one isn't a patch on either. -- David Barbour

(12 December 2017)

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