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Counting Sheep Immerses the Audience in a Maelstrom

February 19, 2018

Cal Performances

Audience participation has never been my jam, but on Friday, I quickly learned that when someone is yelling at you in Ukrainian and motioning for you to move, you move. I looked on as protestors stood up to riot police, then was pushed into an assembly line to stack tires. After loading up a plate of pierogi, I made my way back up to my seat, and spotted my date dancing in the crowd below.

It’s billed as a guerilla folk opera, but more than anything, Counting Sheep is immersive. Co-creators Mark and Marichka Marczyk (who also direct, along with Kevin Newbury) met in Kiev’s Independence Square, where the 2014 demonstrations, against corruption and violation of human rights, took place. The movement resulted in the ousting of the president Viktor Yanukovych, not before many hundreds of deaths.

But first, dinner. The Marczyks’ Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a 14-person band of singer-instrumentalists, sits us around a huge table-cum-stage at the Oakland Metro Operahouse. In Ukrainian polyphony they begin singing the Lord’s Prayer, to projections of Yanukovych on the news. We toast, until something big is happening on Al Jazeera, and we’re shushed so that the TV can be heard (realism in opera, indeed).

Yanukovych has rejected the pending trade deal with the European Union in favor of pursuing closer ties with Russia, and protests erupt onscreen. In person, we bolster the action: Audience members are recruited to carry signs, watching as the musicians recreate the various acts of violence (bulldozers, tear gas) committed by the military, in riot gear, against the protestors, who hold only traditional cloth.

The world-building is as emotional as it is physical. Audience members dance and sing, and even become the happy witnesses of a protest-side proposal. It’s all fun and games until the next skirmish, when we’re uncomfortably close to cast members engaged in realistic-looking combat.

Particularly potent is the mixing of archival with real-time footage. While watching the projected close-ups of faces from the crowd, I suddenly see my own section, in film as shaky and vibrant as the real stuff. Then, as the acted drama of a mourner restrained unfolds on the walls, a broadcasting logo fades into the corner; the recorded and re-created meld.

Our action, when projected as news, feels so credible that I almost forget we’re only playing make-believe. “The war is not over,” the end card reads, but of course, for us, it is: We’re just trying on being protestors, for 80 minutes and at a safe distance.

The cause isn’t mine, and in fact, I had to consult Wikipedia before the event. Yet I’m encouraged and even impelled to participate, appropriate. At the end of the show, Mark Marcyzk graciously thanks us for coming to celebrate and mourn this event that has affected so many people. Not me, I think; I came simply to be entertained.

And I am. Common quibbles about opera — that it’s unrealistic, boring, too long — feel impossibly distant; it’s among the most engaging shows I’ve seen. The music effectively adapts to the action: sousaphone and trombone sustain the dancing tunes, pared-down drum beats heighten dramatic tension, and Mark Marcyzk plays a poignant lament on violin. The traditional a cappella polyphonies are particularly beautiful, familiar and yet distinct from choral singing I’ve heard before.

After all, one thing that someone like me can do is be willing to engage with the unfamiliar in art. Counting Sheep transmits a lot of information, not least through factual projections that situate the action (for example, the average age among deceased protestors was about 24). And a lot of people showed up to learn: tweens, with hip-looking parents, plenty of 30-somethings, and seniors, enthusiastically joining in throwing plastic-foam bricks. Bravo to these audience members, Lemon Bucket, and to Cal Performances for facilitating this exchange.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.