In Captain John Smith Goes to Ukraine, a multimedia performance now playing at La MaMa E.T.C. First Floor Theater, the explorer John Smith's pre-Pocahontas years receive a comical, musical, dreamlike treatment worthy of an August Strindberg play. Whether you'll leave with much knowledge of John Smith depends on your expectations. This is not a bioplay, but rather a whimsical spiritual-journey piece. With its slide shows, poetic recitations in Ukrainian, and soothing bandura music, Captain John Smith at times entertains but more often befuddles.
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the tale of John Smith and his romance with the Native American Pocahontas. That story is told by Smith in Book 3 of his published memoirs. But few readers, we are told in the show's introduction, bother with Book 1, which describes his travails in Eastern Europe before arriving in America to found Jamestown, Virginia. In that section of the book are stories about his duels with Turks, his love for a mysterious woman, his time as a slave in Constantinople, and his escape across the Black Sea.
Captain John Smith Goes to Ukraine, conceived and directed by Virlana Tkacz, purports to relate these adventures in 12 dreamlike scenes that leapfrog back and forth from past to present. The show opens with John Smith (poet Bob Holman, who occasionally steps out of character) enjoying coffee and a croissant with Julian Kytasty, a third-generation bandurist, in a modern-day café. Smith is trying to write his magnum opus, but he has writer's block until the entrance of an encouraging waitress, played by Susan Hwang. From that point, the three actors/characters relate Smith's tales through projections of engravings from his book, recitations of Holman's poetry, Hwang's lively accordion-playing, and Kystasty's ethereal strumming on the bandura.
If this sounds a little confusing, it is. In the true spirit of experimental theater, Captain John Smith Goes to Ukraine disorients its audience to achieve an effect, in this case, to simulate Smith's frenzied and perplexing journey to the New World. The production achieves this not least by fragmenting its narrative and frequently dislodging it from its timeline. The audience must also at times figure out whether the actors are behaving in character or are speaking as themselves (Holman at one point extemporizes on the current upheaval in Ukraine). As if that weren't enough, you'll be perplexed at several times during the performance if you don't understand Ukranian, because chunks of the show's monologue and dialogue are delivered untranslated in that language. At those points you'll simply have to be content listening to Kytasty pluck his bandura.
Adventurous theatergoers may find pleasure accompanying Captain John Smith and his crew on this time-surfing, polyglot, musical journey. Others may prefer to stay home and rent a copy of Disney's Pocahontas (though if you do decide to go to the show, never fear; you'll get to see a clip from the movie there as well).