These days, revolutions and upheavals are broadcasted, hashtagged, live-tweeted. In Counting Sheep, the resistance is all these things — and, also, immersive. Drawing on live video, documentary footage, and the audience’s participation in the action, the show re-creates the scene of the Ukrainian protests in Kiev’s Independence Square from 2014, putting the spectators right at the front lines of the barricades. Dubbed a “guerrilla folk opera,” the music-driven performance leans on both Ukrainian polyphonic choral music and songs from the Canadian band Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The musicians and cast lead the simulacrum. Unsettling, loose in parts, but ultimately effective, this experience will get you thinking about community, collaboration, revolt, violence, and peace.
The audience begins the show sitting in one of two places: at a communal table for a meal, or amid the wooden risers on either side of the room. Those enjoying the former are advised to eat fast because, in an instant, the situation will escalate and your borscht will get left behind: Boisterous discussion gives way to argument, song and revelry morph into confrontation with police. This becomes the first real jolt of the show; the energy changes as the confused, seated audience is forced to stand and scatter. The dining table is dismantled; nothing, anymore, is stable.
Although everything is performed in Ukrainian — with occasional headings or explanatory intertitles in English projected on the walls — there is never any need to panic over what you should be doing. The cast, identifiable by their sheep masks, gesture and direct the audience to carry heavy tires, make signs, sing a song, throw a brick, or dance in celebration as two protesters become engaged. We are encouraged to take photos and tweet while it’s happening. Some may choose to hang back and observe from a distance, but for this piece to really deliver its potential impact, it’s best to place yourself in the thick of participatory throngs.
Though there are moments of genuine trepidation, sometimes the slackness of the production weakens the impact. Tableaux battles between police and protesters lack gravity, the brightly lit slow-motion effects coming off as stagy rather than tense; a more robust use of sound might have aided in making these altercations heart-pounding. The participation, so central to the show, can, too, be briefly awkward. In lulls, you may find yourself standing around in a hard hat holding a sign in Ukrainian (its meaning, if you don’t know the language, unknown to you), wondering, “What am I playing at?”
But that is all part of the messily rewarding process: The curiosities that emerge from the performance of protest are many. Is my hesitancy to throw a foam “brick” at police political, or am I just afraid of bonking someone on the head with my bad aim? Is my irritation with onlookers justified as I work up a sweat carrying tires for their entertainment, or is this a reasonable reflection on collaboration and shared labor? Such internal debates are the value of this immersive exercise. Though the singers are talented, and the band colorful, the show’s strength is more about what your presence among the herd means to you.
The co-creators of Counting Sheep, Mark and Marichka Marczyk, were participants in Independence Square. Their response to this shared path of resistance has been to make this show, but they also depict other protesters who met different fates — scores, for instance, became armed guerrillas in the battle against Russia over Crimea. For some, indeed, the violence never ends. Even if we are re-creating them for a mere evening, these are real events, and their consequences are not presented lightly. Picking up the brick weighed on me in the room and afterward. The object was light, but the choice of whether or not to use it was hefty.