Once There Was a Village
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 1, 2007
The show starts fifteen minutes before the show starts, with a free performance in the lobby at La MaMa's big Annex space: Sxip Shirey and the Luminescent Orchestrii played the night I saw Once There Was a Village, making a joyful noise that put me in such a good mood that it would have taken a catastrophe to take it away from me. (Your results may be different: there are nearly two dozen "cameo" performers lined up to guest-star during the show's run.)
No sooner had the Orchestrii finished than the Hungry March Band appeared, playing something upbeat and exciting to lead us into the theatre. These folks, led by Quince Marcum, are terrific: they're mostly working on horns and reeds, with some lively percussion and—as befits their name—a Twirler named Sarah Valentine. They make music all night long, and I loved it all. (Frank London is the composer.)
So, wow, the opening moments of Once There Was a Village are top-notch. Happily, the rest of the show proves nearly as exhilarating. It is best described, I think, as a pageant—it reminded me of Bread and Puppet Theater, with its distinguished leader (writer/director/performer Vit Horejs) setting the tone for the evening, an earnest blend of political activism and high-energy theatrical happening. The show traces the history of New York from its pre-colonial days to the present as a series of violent displacements, either through deceit (Peter Minuit's swindle of the natives back in 1628), conquest (the English takeover from the Dutch a few decades later), or—most prominently—political and economic injustice (wave after wave of immigrants forced to leave their homelands because of pogroms and poverty, all desperately hoping for something better in this remarkable, tiny island called Manhattan).
Horejs and his collaborators use just about every thea-trick in the book to tell this sweeping story. Found objects become puppets and/or animated metaphors; real marionettes turn up in a delightful sequence in the center of the piece celebrating some of the Eastern European immigrants to our country (watch for the remarkably talented and versatile Alan Barnes Netherton, who makes his delicate little clown/jester marionette dance magically at the climax of this number).
Elsewhere, the story is told with live actors, performing abstract movement, dance, song, and dramatic vignettes. Horejs's company—the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre—is augmented by members of the Hungry March Band, filling the stage with energy and often surprising stage pictures and sounds. The actors, in addition to Horejs and Netherton, are Deborah Beshaw, Steven Ryan, Theresa Linnihan, Quince Marcum, Jason Candler, Valois Mickens, Adelka Polak, Ronny Wasserstrom, and Kat Yew; the last named is one of the evening's standouts, performing a lovely, wistful Asian song and dance.
Some of the segments go on too long, or are somewhat obscure; there's also a longish digression about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg that's interesting but doesn't quite seem to fit in with the rest of the program.
But sequences depicting the effects of economic hardship, intolerance, and war are hard-hitting and effective. And Horejs concludes his show on a wonderful hopeful note, with a new setting of Emma Lazarus's famous poem "The New Colossus" (i.e., the one inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty) by Frank London. Glorious.