Captain John Smith

Capt. Smith Goes to the Ukraine
from the Yara Arts Group
At La MaMa
Directed by Virlana Tkacz
Bob Holman
Susan Hwang
Julian Kytasty

The story from the early 1600’s of John Smith and the native American woman Pocahontas is iconic Americana. The native chief sentences him to execution; Pocahontas intercedes and saves him.

Smith was quite the adventurer. He also seems to have been quite taken with himself. He recorded his life in the first autobiography in English, The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Africa and America from Anno Domini 1593 to 1629.

Before Smith embarked for Virginia – who would have guessed? – he fought the Ottoman Turks and was enslaved. He was taken across the Black Sea to his owner’s mistress, to escape to Ukraine. Capt. John Smith Goes to the Ukraine, from the Yara Arts Group, is based on the account of this adventure his The True Travels book, and some of its passages are quoted verbatim.

For the most part, the show passes delightfully, a pleasant bit of fluff. The story of Smith’s experiences is unclear, but we don’t care – we’re enjoying ourselves smiling at this performance piece. There’s no attempt at verisimilitude or even character. The three actor/musicians perform with the relaxed looseness of cabaret, entertaining us with dialogue and song.

Bob Holman represents Smith, transitioning nimbly from history to humor. He performs a beautiful love poem as Smith woos that Turkish mistress.

The act mixes fact with flippancy. When Smith offers the Turks two captured heads, he’s asked for another, and Ms. Hwang sings a silly and pleasant song about how and three heads mean love.

Julian Kytasty  plays an instrument beautiful to hear and to look at – bandura, a sort of lute with no fewer than of 34 open strings. It sounds like a harp, and it graces the evening even as the audience enters.

Throughout, the show projects graphics on the back wall, and they’re usually marvelous, particularly the detailed maps. They’re engravings taken from the autobiography manuscript.

Near the end of the show there’s a passage relating to the current events in Ukraine, with projections of a totally different sort than we’ve seen. It’s at odds with the tone of the earlier part, but it’s suited to the loose form the company’s working in.

Less successful is a final sequence representing Smith’s arrival in Virginia. They sing a sort of wailing soulful number, out of place and unwanted.

Capt. Smith Goes to the Ukraine is another creative piece from the Yara Arts Group, another of its unlikely works at La MaMa.

March 2014

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