Teatr-Pralnia with CCA Dakh
A RAMBUNCTIOUS SUPER-CHARGED PUPPET CABARET FROM KYIV
Trolls prowl and conflicts rage in online propaganda. External actors force themselves across borders precipitating an icy hot international stalemate. Thousands take to the streets demanding transparency and change.
This is the context for TseSho?/What’s That?, a super-charged puppet ...
Kyiv’s Teatr-Pralnia (Laundry Theater) draws you into an apartment living room, settling you amid a couch, overstuffed chairs, a bench, a wash tub, and scattered rugs; bric-a-brac on every surface and instruments in every nook. There, five kids in overalls shout, sing, recite, scramble, and play, sometimes with their counterparts -- five identically dressed doll-puppets. There’s passion and loopy drabness, curiosity and disassociation. Rhythms propel musical numbers that are funny and madcap and intense, connecting to passages from great Ukrainian poetic texts and disposable Facebook posts with folk song rhymes, and off-the-cuff vamps all rolled into a non-stop puppet cabaret.
You may ask “What’s That?” and that’s exactly what Pralnia wants. Guided by director Vlad Troitsky, the widely admired mastermind of GogolFest, and the Dakh Contemporary Arts Center (CCA Dakh), (home company of DakhaBrakha and Dakh Daughters), in TseSho?/What’s That? Pralnia deploys a cabinet full of musical and theatrical material. They peer through the innocent and incisive lens of children to ask honest, urgent questions about a world they’re struggling to understand. How do we form an identity in a world of buzzing (mis)information and deceptive surfaces? How do we come to terms with our place in the world and in history? TseSho?
Troitsky emphasizes the borderless importance of What’s That’s main idea. “The questions we’re asking are challenging people in all sorts of countries, people everywhere. Children are free in many ways, and a free creature isn’t afraid to live honestly. We want people to feel that, and see how it interacts with their own sense of self and identity. When the audience understands that, we’ll feel like we’ve done what we set out to do.”
U.S. Debut Tour in 2018
Teatr-Pralnia joins four other ensembles from Egypt and Ukraine that will make independent tours of the U.S. from July-December in 2018 as part of Center Stage, a cultural exchange program that invites performing artists from abroad to the United States to perform, meet, and share their experiences with communities around the country. Center Stage is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Pralnia (“laundry”) was launched in June 2015, the day after the troupe’s five members graduated from the Puppetry Department at Kyiv’s National University of Theater, Cinema, and Television. “We had a vision of an ideal theater/laboratory. We understood that we wanted to work in a theater that didn’t exist, so we decided to make one ourselves,” says Pralnia’s Marusia Ionova. And about the name they chose: “We join some opposite things; something important and something simple, something specific and something general, little and great, heart and mind, theater and laundry. We act and we are ourselves,” explains Iovona. “We ask questions to wash souls, to clean hearts, to freshen minds.”
The troupe put on skits and shows --- in the streets, in found spaces, small theaters -- gathering followers like fearless pied pipers to their quirky performances that commanded attention with bold, folk-style voices, cagey lyrics, and compelling, poker-faced delivery. Troitsky loved the work -- “there’s a bit of troublemaking in what they do,” he says slyly -- and he invited them to create a piece together at Dakh, Ukraine’s influential performance incubator. They opted for what they dubbed a “puppet cabaret,” capturing the edgy intimacy of the club variety show while using blank-faced puppets to explore complex themes.
“We liked the sound, the rhythm of that phrase in Ukrainian: TseSho?” explains Troitsky. “In our performance it’s the question designed to provoke. Who are we? Who are we in this world of fake news, when you get lost in the newsfeed, when you start to lose your own memories? When your heart is broken by the news of death and war and destruction, but you are far, far away?”
The experience of putting together What’s That pushed Pralnia’s performers to blow open their performance skills. They decided the play demanded instrumental music. Each actor picked their own. “Before this play, we didn’t play instruments,” laughs Ionova. “We chose the instrument that appealed to us the most. Some of us played around on our own, and some took lessons.” Like much else about TseSho, the ensemble of double bass (Nadiia Golubstova), cello (Marusia Ionova), melodic (Kateryna Petrashova), accordion (Marichka Shtyrbulova), and a haphazard trap set (Igor Mytalnykov), supplemented with ocarinas, whistles, and boomwhackers, creates a freewheeling aural and visual cacophony that extends the work’s emotional range.
As a whole, the production is a loose assemblage of discrete but linked skits or numbers that change, and can be rearranged, theatrically knitted together. This improvisational approach, and an emphasis on expression that belies calculated technical skill, fits the bricolage of words and ideas and images on stage. “We choose lyrics by grabbing texts wherever we can, finding them in books, on Facebook, what we hear on the street today, or from different historical eras,” explains Ionova. “We have our own original lyrics, too. Sometimes we write something down as we’re on the way into the theater.”
The city on the way to the theater has ample food for thought to offer. Kyiv has been at the heart of Ukraine’s upheavals, mass protests, violence, and high hopes since the nation’s independence in 1991. Today, while virtual battles rage in online propaganda and trolling, and malware worms its way into vital computer systems, very real combat continues in eastern Ukraine and in the Crimea following Russia’s military annexation of Ukrainian territories in 2014. This land grab has precipitated a weakened political system, a divided populace, a refugee crisis, misinformation campaigns, and dissident crackdowns – some of the very issues now erupting around Western Europe and America.
TseSho?/What’sThat? approaches these developments from a perspective that foregrounds the ambivalent and multifaceted tensions we face between our inner and outer worlds. Like its children protagonists, Pralnia’s performers here project tensions, determinations, stresses, and feelings rather than events. It isn’t about politics; it’s about human experience.
Performed in a mix of Ukrainian, Russian and English, the show is constantly evolving, as new pieces and moments are incorporated. The group will weave in more and more English-language material, keeping their American audiences in mind. It’s an organic part of their process. “We’re always playing new music and texts, and so it’s impossible to say exactly what it will be,” says Ionova. “But the concept remains the same. The main idea doesn’t change.”
About Center Stage
Center Stage is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts. From June-December 2018, Center Stage will tour five ensembles from Egypt and Ukraine in the U.S. These are Dina Elwedidi (Giza, Egypt), Kurbasy (Lviv, Ukraine), Mohamed Abozekry & Karkadé (Cairo, Egypt), Teatr-Pralnia with CCA Dakh (Kyiv, Ukraine), and Youssra El Hawary (Cairo, Egypt).
Now in its fourth season, by the end of 2018, 29 performing arts ensembles from nine nations -- Algeria, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Tanzania, Ukraine, and Vietnam -- will have toured from coast to coast, hosted by colleges and universities, festivals, music clubs, and cultural centers. Each tour includes residencies in large cities and small towns, and a range of activities from performances, workshops, and discussions, to artist-to-artist exchanges, masterclasses, and community gatherings. Center Stage artists engage with audiences onstage and online sharing their work with audiences in the U.S. and friends and fans at home to build mutual understanding through shared cultures and values.
Center Stage is made possible in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.