Kyiv theater group tours Canada's Fringe Festivals
by Kalyna Yosipiv and Yuriy Diakunchak
TORONTO - "Why should theater be entertaining?" asked Kyiv actor Oleh Liptsyn after a performance of "The Old Woman" at Toronto's Fringe Festival on July 10.
That may sound like an absurd question to someone brought up on a steady diet of Broadway hit musicals, but Mr. Liptsyn wasn't kidding. "Theater is meant to move the soul," he said. In the 30-something thespian's interpretation, this is not necessarily an entertaining proposition.
Despite such convictions, "The Old Woman," a production of the Kyiv-based TheaterClub Company, is a rather entertaining piece of theater, at least in its North American incarnation. Revolving around the imaginary meeting of two old, half-insane writers who lived a century apart, Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol) and Daniil Kharms, the play explores aging and the realization that death is near. As the end of life approaches, the characters express regret about the many things they haven't achieved, and now will never be able to achieve.
Caught between reality and imagination, the characters feel a spiritual void that needs to be filled, leading the audience on a fascinating journey deep into the human psyche. "Yerusalym, Yerusalym," intones the Kharms character (played by Mr. Liptsyn), reflecting his quest for deeper meaning.
Mr. Liptsyn, also the staging's director, sees the play as an avant-garde interpretation of the Slavic absurdist tradition in the manner of Hohol. "Slavic absurdist tradition differs from the Western concept of absurdism in that it is optimistic. The circumstances of life conspire to beat a person down, but the spirit always seeks to rise above the mundane," he said.
Humor, too, is received differently here than in Ukraine. "People look for deeper or hidden meanings in humor in Ukraine, they expect to have their soul touched by the performance. Here I've been forced to be much more demonstrative in my humor, more obvious." Mr. Liptsyn opined that audiences approach theater from a more realistic angle in North America. "They expect theater to be a slice of life on the stage. In Ukraine the approach is much more abstract," he said.
"That was probably the most challenging thing about performing here. It is difficult to gauge and read an unfamiliar audience, improvise in front of it and try to get the best response possible," Mr. Liptsyn said.
Slightly longer than one hour in length, the play is presented in English and Russian. The troupe decided to keep a part of the play in Russian because it was the language in which Hohol and Kharms wrote. Two other actors perform in the play, Gediminas Sederavicius, who plays the part of Hohol, and Alla Daruga, who plays a cat transformed into Pulkheria Ivanovna, a character from Hohol's writings.
Particularly effective was Ms. Daruga's haunting chant, not quite singing, but not quite cat-in-estrus-yowling either. Almost orgasmic in quality, it embraced her transformation from feline to the human "old woman" of the title.
The play premiered at the Kyiv Avant-Garde Theater in 1995, and the troupe has performed it across Europe. The ensemble also enjoyed a successful visit to the United States last year. Co-founded in 1988 by Mr. Liptsyn, Ms. Daruga and Igor Lesthenko, TheatreClub is billed as "one of Kyiv's elite artistic groups."
Mr. Liptsyn said that all of the troupes' plays have been developed in Kyiv, drawing on the works of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Hohol, Mykola Khvyliovyi and Kyivan Russian Mikhail Bulgakov. He added that his company's intent is to tap into English, Continental European and Slavic theatrical traditions. The troupe's productions have won prizes for staging and experimentation in theater in Ukraine.
TheatreClub's tour of Canada's Fringe Festivals began in Toronto in early June and will continue westward until late September. The stops include Winnipeg (July 17-26), Saskatoon (July 31-August 9), Edmonton (August 14-23) and four cities in British Columbia: Kelowna (August 13-22), Victoria (August 27-September 7), Nanaimo (September 10-13) and Vancouver (September 10-20).
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 30, 1998, No. 35, Vol. LXVI
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