Slices of East Village life from Pegleg to Purple


By Lincoln Anderson

Currently enjoying a two-and-a-half-week run through Feb. 11 at The Annex Theatre at La MaMa on E. Fourth St., “Once There Was a Village” takes its inspiration from Yuri Kapralov’s book of the same name about the late 1960s East Village.

A collage-like work, it was written and directed by Vit Horejs, artistic director of the Czechoslovak American Marionette Theatre. Although the spirit of the late Kapralov’s book was his departure point, Horejs’s sweeping creation evolved into his own take on the history of the East Village and Lower East Side, starting with the Dutch West India Company and Peter Stuyvesant and colored by successive waves of immigration.

The show features novel performance-art pieces, such as, in one early scene, kneeling actors opening and closing suitcases over their heads. Horejs later explained that these represented “swamp creatures” that inhabited the formerly marshy areas east of Avenue A. But if audience members interpret these figures differently — this writer, for one, thought they were giant clams evoking immigrants’ transatlantic crossing — it’s O.K., said Horejs smiling gently, not uptight about what viewers may find in his work.

A recurring theme is throat cutting, with razor-wielding actors slicing each other’s necks, sometimes forming a virtual conga line of bloodthirsty killers, symbolizing the merciless New World. A scaffold stands in for the Sixth and B Garden’s tower but at other times also a tenement building.

Descending via a blinking U.F.O., Adam Purple appears at a Community Board 3 meeting about his legendary Garden of Eden, with Purple bearing a suitcase full of “golden treasure,” carriage-horse manure from Central Park for fertilizer. In Horejs’s version, history is rewritten and the board votes to save Purple’s garden. Larger historical events, such as the Rosenbergs’ execution, are also worked into the drama.

Horejs, who emigrated from Prague, plays Kapralov, a refugee from the Caucasus Mountains who was the elder statesman of the East Village’s bohemians until he died in 2005. There are some excellent individual performances, including singing by Deborah Beshaw and Kat Yew, among others. Brass band musical interludes are provided by the Hungry March Band.

Horejs met Kapralov when they both had studios in the former CHARAS/El Bohio arts center in the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St.

“It’s inspired, it’s my take on Yuri,” Horejs said of his piece. “I didn’t want to just do the book. The whole frame is Yuri, but it has many, many layers.”

The work is nearly two hours long, without intermission, and several viewers at a recent performance felt it could stand cutting by perhaps one-third. But they enjoyed it.

As one audience member put it, “It’s very Lower East Side.”