In the midst of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, on a city square in Kiev, someone handed me the lyrics to a song. A protester was playing it on an upright piano as couples danced and folks sang along. The temper was high-spirited, although the lyrics, in Ukrainian, spoke of flaming tires and a authorities of criminals that wouldn’t be tolerated anymore.
This was “Counting Sheep Vault Festival Review Sheep,” billed as an “immersive guerrilla people opera,” at 3LD Artwork and Expertise Center. Introduced by Hot Feat USA, it plunges audience members into the uprising, which lasted for a couple of months in late 2013 and early 2014, resulting within the ouster of Ukraine’s president. I don’t speak Ukrainian, though, and I couldn’t have been the only one there who looked at a sheet of lyrics I didn’t understand and declined to sing them. (Later, I asked the show’s publicist for a translation.) Isn’t realizing what you’re advocating a basic rule of rebel?
The band’s charismatic frontman is Mark Marczyk, a Canadian who created the show with Marichka Marczyk, his Ukrainian wife. The couple met in 2014 in the course of the revolution, and this good-looking and impressive manufacturing — directed by them and Kevin Newbury — is inspired by their experience. Track is its principal technique of communication, but its video-rich projection design (by Greg Emetaz), which surrounds the audience on four sides, doesn’t hassle with supertitles for the lyrics. It would be a clearer, more highly effective show if it did.
Starting festively, with some viewers members seated at a big central table and served a meal that features borscht, pierogies and apple sauce, the efficiency alternates celebration with danger, and then turns mournful, with exquisite polyphonic choral music. Occasionally, projected text in English fills in some background concerning the revolution.
However the show hasn’t mastered one of the fundamentals of immersive theater, which is all the more essential when spectators are also participants. Just like actors, audience members need to know their roles: what’s expected of them in every moment, including the place to stand. “Counting Sheep” isn’t nice at guiding its flock.
Asking theatergoers to affix in barricade-building and brick-throwing, which this show does, seems a misguided impulse, anyway. The production is an honorably intended tribute to the revolution, which turned violent and left many dead. However for the audience, neither the passion nor the risk is real, and for us to feign it feels hollow — like taking part in at another person’s protest while the world burns.