In the middle 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 people sang along. The mood was high-spirited, though the lyrics, in Ukrainian, spoke of flaming tires and a government of criminals that wouldn’t be tolerated anymore.
This was “Counting Sheep,” billed as an “immersive guerrilla folk opera,” at 3LD Art and Technology Center. Presented by Hot Feat USA, it plunges audience members into the uprising, which lasted for a few months in late 2013 and early 2014, resulting in 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 knowing what you’re advocating a basic rule of rebellion?
Granted, the title “Counting Sheep” refers partly to the herd mentality of protest. But the language barrier is a persistent frustration in this participatory multimedia production, performed in Ukrainian and pulsing with live music by the excellent Lemon Bucket Orkestra of Toronto, which describes itself as “Canada’s only Balkan-klezmer-Gypsy-party-punk-super-band.” (We’ll take the group’s word for it.)
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 during the revolution, and this handsome and ambitious production — directed by them and Kevin Newbury — is inspired by their experience. Song is its principal means of communication, yet its video-rich projection design (by Greg Emetaz), which surrounds the audience on four sides, doesn’t bother with supertitles for the lyrics. It would be a clearer, more powerful show if it did.
Beginning festively, with some audience members seated at a large central table and served a meal that includes borscht, pierogies and apple sauce, the performance alternates celebration with danger, and then turns mournful, with exquisite polyphonic choral music. Occasionally, projected text in English fills in some background about the…