Playful, perplexing, and powerful, Once There Was A Village is an adaptation of a 1974 memoir by the late artist Yuri Kapralov about his life and impressions of the East Village in the turbulent sixties. In a 1998 profile of Kapralov for The Village Voice, Sarah Ferguson speculated that a theatrical adaptation of the book might look like a cross between Les Misérables and No Exit. It’s much better than that. Vít Hoejš and his energetic troupe, the Czechoslovak- American Marionette Theatre, have fashioned a production that blends the physical inventiveness of Théâtre de la Complicité, and the musical thematic collage of Hair (despite the company name this isn’t just a puppet show, although marionettes are used). In addition to music from the Hungry March Band, whose New Orleans-style keeps energy high, the cast sings (most songs have lyrics by Hoejš, music by Frank London).
The story can be confusing, but that’s only because the protagonist is the city itself, with characters from different eras and countries, including Yuri (played by Hoejš). The episodes pile on top of each other like debris in a junkyard. Vacuum cleaners, open suitcases, and parts of air conditioners are transformed into guitars, canoe paddles, pens, and guns.
Magical images abound: Three Indians, paddling ironing boards, are slowly encircled by a rope, while a Dutch settler describes the “year of blood.” Shouting “I hate New York,” the cast crushes beer cans with their feet, then slides on them gracefully. An African describes his village’s brutal enslavement and his life in the New World—then the “village” turns into a gospel choir singing a hymn to love. The show’s mélange of styles perfectly captures this city’s bewildering beauty.