Toronto's Lemon Bucket Orkestra brings the 2014 Ukrainian revolution vividly to life in new immersive play, Counting Sheep.
Often it seems as if the problems of the world are playing out on a single channel. Each new drama occupies us for a day or a week, until the next replaces it—part of a never-ending live-stream of global turmoil that we can click on and off as the links go floating down our feeds.
Last winter, a simmering protest in Kiev broke out suddenly into terrifying violence, and the world was transfixed by images of giant tire fires and masked protesters flinging bricks. That episode was quickly overshadowed by Putin’s invasion of Crimea, but for one week in February, tens of thousands of Ukrainians battled an army of riot cops across the city’s central plaza, called the Maidan, or Independence Square. Hundreds were killed or went missing, and many hundreds more were injured—but ultimately, the protestors succeeded in ousting their brutal kleptocrat president, Viktor Yanukovych.
If those events now seem blurry and far-off, a new immersive play from Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra will make them feel startlingly immediate. Counting Sheep brings the on-the-ground realities of last year’s Maidan Revolution vividly to life. Through the course of this freewheeling participatory performance, audiences are invited to join the Ukrainian uprising: we eat the food, sing the songs, build the barricades, throw the bricks, and, finally, mourn the dead.
Counting Sheep is staged in the round, but reversed, with the audience seated at a long table in the centre and the performers moving around the outside. University of Toronto’s St. Vladimir Institute hosts the show in a narrow, windowless hall with high ceilings and a deep stage that’s obscured throughout most of the show. Large projections on three sides continuously play footage from the protests, creating a noisy, frightening montage that forms a surreal contrast with the polite atmosphere around the dinner table.
The sense of disjunction is intense: the audience absorbs a relentless barrage of shaky videos showing the chaos that’s about to engulf them, even as they slurp a delicious borscht that has literally been danced out to them by wild-eyed minstrels calling out traditional folk songs in strong, clear voices. The guests on opening night mostly wore suits and elegant dresses, emphasizing the bizarre juxtaposition at work.
The Lemon Bucket Orkestra bills itself as a “Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super Band.” For such a sprawling label, it’s a surprisingly accurate and efficient summary. It’s earthy, raucous, soulful, and very adept at celebrating. Certainly, there was a lot to celebrate in Kiev’s Independence Square last February, as an oppressed people came together to assert its collective will against an authoritarian regime. Counting Sheep expresses the triumphant satisfaction produced when tradition and culture prevail over the divisiveness of politics.
But collective experience carries its own threat of repression because of the oversimplification it can promote. When the violence on the projections comes to life in the room, Counting Sheep loses its dissonant complexity and shifts into fairytale. Despite boasting a cast of 12, there are really only two characters in the play: the uniformed Berkut policemen (carrying guns ingeniously crafted from black paper airplanes) and the brave protestors, clad in loose-fitting embroidered shirts under heavy winter coats. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the right side wins.
For a play about conflict, Counting Sheep is strangely untroubled. The show’s creators present a world of unconfused right and wrong, but for those who don’t understand the conflict and haven’t chosen a side (what about the Ukrainians who prefer to look east to Russia, rather than west to the EU?), being urged to join the forces of good against the forces of evil can be an uncomfortable experience. More context would have been helpful.
Some will already have that context, however, and they’re especially likely to be affected by this production. The show concludes with a stylized funeral, heavy with symbolism, for the murdered protestors; on opening night, several in the audience wept openly.
As Ukraine continues to find a path between east and west, there’s a possibility that protestors will be able to turn from conflict to connection, putting down the bricks and Molotov cocktails, and picking up the subtler instruments of resistance: the fiddle, the drum, and the clear human voice.