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Once There Was a Village


Valois Mickins (as early New York settler) and marionette, listening to a speech by Peter Stuyvesant about building a wall at Wall Street. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.


Quince Marcum and marionettes in tavern scene set in early New Amsterdam. Photo by Yvonne Hespos.


A "tower of found objects" is an homage to the sculptural tower and neighborhood landmark presently found at Avenue B and Sixth Street. The found objects will double as puppets in the show: ironing boards become canoes, mops become spears and bayonets, and the whole scaffold becomes a garbage truck. Photo by Yvonne Hespos.

Jonathan Slaff

Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre in "Once There Was a Village," an ethno opera with puppets and found objects about 400 years of the East Village Music by Frank London & the Hungry March Band

"Everyone has two villages," says Vit Horejs, founder/director of Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT), "one in the old country and one here." That's the idea behind "Once There Was a Village," CAMT's new ethno-opera with puppets and found objects, to be presented January 25 to February 11 by La MaMa E.T.C. in its large Annex Theater. The music, composed by Frank London, is performed by the Hungry March Band and reflects the musical heritage of immigrant and counterculture groups over four centuries in New York City's East Village.

The play follows generational cycles of immigrant waves through the centuries, during which a tenement "village" rises out of the tidal marsh just north of New Amsterdam. Native Americans who find food and refuge in the swamp are displaced (or worse) by Dutch settlers, whose farms are swallowed in turn by shipyards, ironworks, tobacco factories, sweatshops and tenements. Newcomers escaping the nightmares of pogroms, famine and war bring their dreams to this slice of the New World, another frontier village that in its own time is burned and ripped apart by cultural conflict.

The piece looks upon four centuries of immigration to the East Village of New York as it would have been seen by the late Yuri Kapralov, an "elder statesman" of the East Village counterculture. Kapralov came to the U.S. as a WWII refugee from the Caucasus Mountains. He was an East Village artist with a steady outflow of abstract paintings, sculptures and constructions made of found materials. However, he is better known today for his books; most notably, his chronicle of the Tompkins Square area in the late '60s, "Once There Was A Village," for which this play is named.

John Miller wrote in East Village Eye, "If there were a God, then 'Once There Was a Village,' Yuri Kapralov's chronicle of life as an exiled Russian artist on the Lower East Side, would have gone to Broadway instead of 'Rent.' Only the staging of this book, set amid the riots of the late '60s and the crime-infested turmoil of the early '70s, might look like a cross between 'Les Miserables' and (Sartre's) 'No Exit.'"

The book depicts Russian-born Kapralov's life and art as they are transformed by the devastating losses of his marriage, his daughter, and temporarily, his sanity. Kapralov's struggle is symbolic of generations of immigrants who fled economic, religious, ethnic and political upheavals in their own villages, only to arrive to the "gateway of the poor and wretched," a.k.a. Lower East Side a.k.a. Alphabet City a.k.a. the East Village a.k.a. Loisaida.

As a tribute to Kapralov, this production is staged in "found object style," with objects were elements of his artwork--piano viscera, brooms, mops, vacuum cleaners, suitcases, pots and pans, etc. His white-bearded visage (he reminded everybody of a Cossak) is rendered as several puppets. Kapralov was also an inveterate chess player and chess appears in the play.

Beside Kapralov's autobiographical book, sources for the play include a diverse selection of picture books, photography books and Jacob Riis' famed "How the Other Half Lives." Characters include many representatives of the revolutionary tradition of the Lower East Side, including the Rosenbergs and the Jewish Left of all hues. Says Horejs, "The idea is to have twenty Kapralovs, each in different times, because every generation has a similar Yuri."

Vit Horejs cites an artistic debt to Kapralov, who operated his Sixth Sense gallery out of a storefront on East Sixth Street where Horejs performed much of his early work. Kapralov was also part of 7 Loaves, a coalition of seven arts groups, some of which adopted the abandoned PS 64 building that was eventually became El Bohio/Charas Arts and Community Center. CAMT had its workshop space there.

The play also includes an extra terrestrial character based on Adam Purple, the legendary Lower East Side squatter best known for creating The Garden of Eden, or "Earthwork," a world-famous community garden on Eldridge Street. At its peak, The Garden of Eden, with its concentric flowerbeds and yin/yang central design, including 45 fruit and nut trees over five lots, was featured in National Geographic magazine (Sept. 1984) and attracted tourists from all over the world. It was bulldozed to make way for a low-income housing project in 1986.

"Once There Was A Village" was developed through a preview performance at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, in weekly workshops from February-July 2006 at CAMT's studio in DUMBO, at the Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street (the former site of Manhattan Theatre Club), and through a junk puppet building retreat in Cold Spring, New York.

Frank London's score includes folk songs from the mosaic of nationalities on the Lower East Side, including a Czech Hussite battle chorale. There is even an imagined duet between Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen, co-written by London (music) and Horejs (lyrics). Film segments will include forty year-old footage of Ellen Stewart building La MaMa E.T.C. and archival segments depicting old Jewish bakers and Ukrainian women who reminisce about the neighborhood's handover to "the druggists" (pushers).

The play is written and directed by Vit Horejs. Set design is by Tom Lee. Marionettes by Jakub Krejci and Milos Kasal share the stage with found-object puppets by the company. Costume design is by Michelle Beshaw. The actor/puppeteers are: Deborah Beshaw, Michelle Beshaw, Jason Candler, Vit Horejs, Theresa Linnihan, Quince Marcum, Alan Barnes Netherton, Adelka Polak, Steven Ryan, Ronny Wasserstrom, and Kat Yew.

The piece will be enriched by cameo appearances by musicians, performance artists and ethnic folk groups with ties to the East Village. For a schedule of guest artists, see: www.czechmarionettes.org.

WHERE AND WHEN:
January 25 to February 11, 2007
La MaMa E.T.C., 74A East 4th Street (presented by La MaMa E.T.C.)
Thursday-Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm; Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm
$20 general admission; box office 212-475-7710, www.lamama.org

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