"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. 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.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff
Valois Mickins (as early New York settler) and marionette, listening to a speech by Peter Stuyvesant about building a wall at Wall Street.
Vit Horejs, an emigre from Prague, founded Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre in 1990, utilizing century-old Czech puppets which he found in the Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. His trademark is using puppets of many sizes, from six-inch toy marionettes to twelve-foot rod puppets which double as scenery. CAMT is dedicated to preserving and presenting traditional and not-so-traditional puppetry. Horejš is well-known for innovative re-interpretations of classics. At La MaMa E.T.C., the company has performed "The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald" (2004), "Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery" (2003), "The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Joan of France" (2001), "Johannes Dokchtor Faust" (2000), "The Little Rivermaid Rusalka" (1999) and "Golem" (1997). The last was featured in the 1998 Henson International Puppetry Festival.
CAMT'S first New York season featured "Johannes Dokchtor Faust" (1990), utilizing antique Czech puppets found by Vit Horejs at the Jan Hus Church in the heart of Manhattan's Czech neighborhood. Restaged in 1994, "Faust" was presented by NADA as a part of its Obie Award-winning "Faust Festival" in Soho and at La MaMa (2000). Other NYC productions include "A Christmas Carol--OY! Hanukkah--Merry Kwanzaa," "Kacha and the Devil," "The White Doe - Or The Piteous Trybulations of the Sufferyng Countess Jenovefa," "Snehurka, The Snow Maiden," "Twelve Iron Sandals" and "The Historye of Queen Ester, King Ahasverus and the Haughty Haman." CAMT has performed its "Hamlet" at the Vineyard Theater, in outdoor venues in NYC, and in the 2004 Prague Summer Shakespeare Festival in the Lord Chamberlain's Palace Courtyard at Prague Castle.
Its most recent production, "The Bass Saxophone," a WWII fantasy with music based on a story by Josef Skorecky, played 11 weeks at The Puppet Library in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch at Prospect Park, Brooklyn during the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2006. The Company has also appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, the Smithsonian Institution, The World Trade Center, the Antonin Dvorak Festival in Spillville, Iowa, the Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis, the Lowell Folk Arts Festival in Massachusetts and in international festivals in Poland, Turkey, Pakistan, and the Czech Republic.