An immigrant’s tale, as told by vacuum cleaners


By Vivienne Leheny

There’s a standard narrative about the New York immigrant experience, and it goes something like this: desperate immigrant flees a politically, economically and/or culturally oppressive homeland, makes the difficult journey to America, and is beset by tragedy and loss along the way. He (it is almost always a “he”) struggles to get by as a stranger building a new life in an indifferent land. Eventually, he triumphs (as measured by political, economic and/or cultural success). Cue swelling music. The End.

It’s a nice story — one that reinforces our belief in the enduring American Dream — but it’s not a complete one, and “Once there was a Village,” is one émigré’s attempt to balance the narrative. This original play, underscored with music, is a production of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) and is now running at La MaMa’s Annex through February 12th.

Vit Horejs, the show’s writer and director, founded CAMT in 1990, twelve years after arriving in the states to work here as an actor. He cuts a striking figure at over six feet tall, with a leonine head of salt-and-pepper hair (which he’s since cropped). He first emigrated from Prague to Paris because, as he mildly puts it, “the political situation in Czechoslovakia was difficult for the arts.” He adds: “I spoke better French than English.

I wanted to learn English, but England wouldn’t let me in.” America would however, and in 1978, while still in his 20s, Horejs arrived in New York City. After a short stint living in Queens and working as both a bike messenger and cabdriver (the quintessential profession of the newly-arrived immigrant), he began to find work in the theatre, first as a stage manager and then, as his English improved, as an actor.

Before long, he was gravitating toward the creative ferment that was the Lower East Side’s underground arts scene. There he met Yuri Kapralov, a Russian-born artist who created his works out of “found objects” — brooms, chairs, bits of musical instruments — that he discovered scattered on city streets. Kapralov, who died in 2005 [his obituary appeared in The Villager, Sept. 21, 2005], is remembered, among other things, for his book “Once There was a Village,” which is generally considered to be the definitive chronicle of L.E.S. life in the dodgy years of the 1960s and 1970s. In this semi-autobiographical work, Kapralov relates the story of two Slavic immigrants against the backdrop of the East Village upheavals during that period, including the rise of heroin-related violence and the brutal riots of 1967 that contributed to Avenue C’s decades-long reputation as one of the most treacherous streets in America.

Several years back, Horejs approached Kapralov about creating a work for his CAMT company, based on “Once There was a Village.” Kapralov, who’d provided rehearsal and performance space to Horejs in the actor’s early years in New York, gave him his blessing, but it wasn’t until after Kapralov’s death that Horejs sat down to adapt the piece. Horejs says Kapralov’s book conveys a more realistic depiction of what it means to be an immigrant in New York City than other works he’d seen or read. “The notion came to me of many Yuris, leaving their own countries and thinking they’ve left their tragedies behind. And they come here with such expectations, only to find perhaps as many problems as they tried to escape.”

CAMT’s production of “Once There was a Village” incorporates Kapralov’s work but also extends the idea of “many Yuris” back before the city’s original Dutch settlers to the Native American tribes who first inhabited the island. It tracks the immigrant experience through the waves of Chinese, European, Slavic, Caribbean, East Asian, South American, and other ethnic groups who made their way to America and inevitably settled in enclaves on the L.E.S. The show explores their struggles through CAMT’s 10 musicians and 10 actors and their interaction with the marionettes and “found objects” the performers bring to life onstage. The found objects are a tribute to Krapalov’s art and, in a departure from other CAMT productions, they’re featured more prominently than the company’s marionettes. Horejs is partial to the vacuum cleaners employed in the show. “They’re very anthropomorphic and easily take on other forms. They become extra limbs, birds… You can compose so many things out of the vacuum puppets.”

The show also features cameo appearances by L.E.S. musicians and artists whose own work provides a continuum of the “Village” story. “I like to think our show captures the truth of the [immigrant] experience,” Horejs smiles, adding, “without being too bleak.”

He thinks Krapalov would have been comfortable with this expansion of his L.E.S. story, both backward and forward in time. “I hope people who love his book won’t be offended that this isn’t a literal dramatization. Rather, it’s inspired by it. I’d love for the show to move people unfamiliar with Yuri’s writing, to track it down and read his poetic work.”