nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
April 17, 2010
Gorgeous Ukrainian and Kyrgyz traditional songs performed by women with exquisite voices, accompanied elegantly by ancient instruments, as well as stunning changes of tone with the contemporary duo "The Debutante Hour," combine to create a beautiful soundscape through the simple story of two daughters leaving their mothers and losing their cultural identities in the process. Scythian Stones is unlike anything I've heard before.
The voices of Nina Matvienko and Tonia Matvienko (these performers are actually mother and daughter from Ukraine) and Kenzhegul Satybaldieva and Ainura Kachkynbek kyzy (from Kyrgyzstan) are what make this production so worth seeing. The way they are able to build tension vocally clearly comes from a place of deep connection to the songs being performed. An introduction to the play says that many of the pieces are actually wedding songs, although not used in that context in this piece. Whatever their actual meaning, they are very much felt in the moment and therefore easily applied to the mother and daughter relationships.
The two girls leave their mothers and go off to the city. The city turns out to be—or pulls them into—the underworld, where they are stripped of their traditions and turn to stone. Leading them on the underworld descent with "This Is The Underworld, Baby" are Susan Hwang and Maria Sonevytsky. The sharp shift in musical tone from the traditional pieces that soar to the upbeat songs that rock really clarifies that play's overall message by not making the traditional good and the cosmopolitan bad; rather both are really good, only one is familiar and the other seems to have gotten lost somewhere. We must admit that something is given up by having a motley culture, even if it is beautiful in its own way.
Directors Virlana Tkacz and Watoku Ueno really allow time to let the traditional way of life be simple, warm, and slow-moving, and then let it be broken by the bouncing rhythm and elaborate action of the city/underworld. The movement dynamics they've created fit. But, since the music is the real strength of this piece, it is unwaveringly the focal point. Ueno's zig-zagging set and effective design also help the journey develop; sheets fall and projections come on, totally covering that traditional world we were in previously.
Narration/translation provided by Cecilia Arana seems to function as a medium for the audience to relate, emphasizing the distance between the audience and the cultural world of the play. The translation often provides some important exposition, but despite her excellent singing, her modern attitude interrupts an otherwise transporting experience.
See this play to hear some truly marvelous traditional Eastern European music.