nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 29, 2009
Er Toshtuk is a new hybrid theatre piece from Yara Arts Group that retells the Kyrgyz epic of the same name. The story is hundreds of years old and is part of the oral tradition of the Kyrgyz people of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country that was part of the Soviet Union; China is its neighbor to the east). It tells of Toshtuk, tenth son of Eleman, and his many journeys and adventures. The main ones depicted here are his battle with a witch that sends him to the underworld, and another with a fearsome giant dragon. He wins the heart of the strong-willed young woman who becomes his wife. And one of his important allies is Chalkyuruk, the Magic Horse. (Horses seem to be an important part of this particular mythology.)
Toshtuk's tale is reminiscent of others that are more familiar to Americans, like the seven labors of Hercules or the Odyssey of Homer. The program tells us that Er Toshtuk is the second oldest Kyrgyz epic (I wish it indicated exactly how old). The hour-long theatre piece takes in dozens of songs and verses from Kyrgyz whose titles translate to things like "Hooves of the White Horse" and "In the High Pasturelands." The music for the show is written and played by Nurbek Serkebaev, on a number of indigenous instruments whose sounds are often unusual and distinctive. The principal singer in the company is Kenzehegul Satybaldieva, who is a renowned Kyrgyz actress and singer of dastan (traditional stories). The work of these two artists feels the most connected to the epic and is the highlight of this production.
Most of the other performers are Kyrgyz, but there are two American members of Yara Arts Group in the cast as well. The director/co-creator Virlana Tkacz is an American of Ukrainian descent, and many other collaborators—reinforcing the great multinational tradition of La MaMa—are from Japan. Many of Tkacz's staging concepts are distinctly contemporary: the underworld scenes are played in the dark, for example, with the actors holding flashlights up to their own faces. Most of the text is in Kyrgyz, but some is in English (often, as far as I could tell, repeating and translating what has just been said in Kyrgyz). Shadow puppets and symbolic, abstract scenery (by Watoko Ueno and Makoto Takeuchi) enhance the storytelling.
The show is, thus, not only a hybrid connecting ancient traditions with a modern audience but blending a variety of styles and genres to create something reasonably accessible to contemporary sensibilities. I'm not sure that it works as well as it could. There's not quite enough English or purely choreographed movement to make it easy to follow for non-Kyrgyz speakers, and I wondered why Tkacz didn't supply a detailed synopsis of the story in the program, the way that Ellen Stewart always does with her multi-lingual epics.
Perhaps even more problematic, there's not enough of what feels like authentic Kyrgyz tradition to convey the culture and ethos of this tale. I didn't leave with a clear sense of what makes this adventure story unique; no real historical/social context is provided (although there was opportunity to do so, in the curtain speech that Tkacz made before the show began). Does Kyrgyzstan have a theatrical tradition? I didn't find out anything about that in Er Toshtuk.
In the end, although the show is entertaining and unusual—and the chance to hear some authentic Kyrgyz music is beautifully realized—Er Toshtuk seemed to me to be a missed opportunity to really share something about the Kyrgyz culture with an audience that likely knows almost nothing about it. I was hoping to get some direct insight into a nation I have not yet experienced. Instead, I got a multicultural blend that smoothed over rather than sharpened differences—a worthy goal, perhaps, but not the one I was looking forward to.