nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
April 9, 2011
Long before Edgar Allen Poe wove his avian-inspired narrative poem about love, death, and descent into madness, the raven served writers from Shakespeare to Marlowe as an ill omen foretelling of death or calamity. Ukrainian poet, playwright, and translator Oleh Lysheha found his own inspiration in this unfortunate fowl with his poem "Raven," now adapted into a performance art piece of the same title by Yara Arts Group at La MaMa E.T.C. While the bird in this production does not manage to clear his reputation as a harbinger of doom, he does incite this ensemble to glorious flight.
Our poem’s protagonist (Andrew Colteaux) spends his day at the local monastery, taking in moment-to-moment minutiae (“I wonder if my millet will sprout? / I scattered the seeds somewhere here, / beneath the window”) and watching a lovely student (Maren Bush) whitewash a new wall being constructed on the structure. He finds his way to a local fruit stand and is taken by an ethereal young woman in white (Kat Yew). His desire for her seems manifested in a longing for fresh peaches and apples. Instead, he goes to meet his friend Ivan (Sean Eden) for a brown-bagged lunch of stale bits of bread and sardines. It is here, hunched over up-ended buckets serving as dining chairs and tables, that they feel a presence watching over them and they discover a raven on the windowsill. The raven, worse for wear, is captured by the men and examined before Ivan determines the bird has life in it still and sets it free. None too surprisingly, the visit of the bird has ruinous repercussions.
Complimenting the vivid imagery of Lysheha’s words and the translation by creator / director Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps is the set, bare with the exception of a screen on wheels designed by Watoku Ueno / Aki-ology. Corrugated plastic on one side and sleek, shiny sheets of plastic on the other, it acts as a rich textural landing for the vibrant video projections of designer Mikhail Shraga and alternately splits the space, rotates to generate a spiraling sense of confusion, and even serves as transport for whomever hops on for the ride. Lighting designer David Bonilla also gets time with the screen, employing plenty of shadow play. When not backlighting, Bonilla also creates magic with a lone mobile light in the bottom of a bucket and a laser-thin down spot on our narrator’s face.
Adding to the ambience of this production are the musical aspects. Live performer Julian Kytasky opens the show with a lovely improvisation on the bandura. Electronic compositions by Alla Zagaykevych and recorded songs by the Balkans/Appalachian-influenced duo Ash (Aurelia Shrenker and Eva Salina Primack) contribute a haunting aura to the piece. An occasional voiceover during the course of the poem adds lines from the original verse spoken in Ukrainian, offering us a sense of place.
The risk of embracing poetic convention in performance is that, due to form, the audience might become estranged from the story. In verse, it is not unusual for metaphor, fragments, and bits of rich imagery to be found in abundance, but rarely is something spelled out for the audience. Sometimes the trail we are meant to follow opens and closes before us, not unlike an invisible woodland path that calls to Ivan in the wilderness. I personally got lost in the lyricism during the last quarter or so of the production, by no fault of the ensemble. It may have simply been poetic fatigue after listening intently for just under an hour, but I had to read the translation of Lysheha’s poem provided in the program a few times to figure out what exactly had happened towards the end. In spite of this, the path flown by Raven is, by turns, intoxicating in both its simplicity and complexity. I encourage you to follow where it leads.