Review: Raising Funds to Aid Their Nation, Ukrainian Youth Mix Song with Stories of Orphanhood in "Mom on Skype"

Mom on Skype

Based on the story collection Mom on Skype

Directed by Oleg Oneshchak

Director of U.S. tour: Mariia Oneshchak

Presented by Irondale at The Space at Irondale

85 S. Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NYC

August 13-14, 2022

Mom on Skype at the Irondale. Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein
This weekend, The Space at Irondale hosts an extraordinary event featuring an extraordinary cast. Mama Po Skaipu was created by a group of young actors, none older than fourteen, from The School of Open-Minded Kids Studio Theater in Lviv, Ukraine, but the Russian invasion threw the nation into chaos not long before the play was meant to premiere. In the face of these overwhelming circumstances, the show made its delayed debut anyway, as documented in The New York Times, in April, in a bomb shelter. Directed by Oleg Oneshchak, a teacher at the Studio Theater who was now an active-duty soldier, the performance was one of the few events in what is normally a cultural center in Ukraine.

Now, as Mom on Skype, the play has made its way to New York for its U.S. premiere, with Oneshchak's wife Mariia stepping in as director because her husband was not cleared to leave Ukraine in time, and with two of their children in the cast. Bringing Mom on Skype to Brooklyn involved a considerable amount of bureaucratic wrangling–including enlisting the help of the offices of Representative Hakim Jeffries and Senator Chuck Schumer–and fundraising on the part of Executive Director Terry Greiss and the Irondale team, who made sure that the journey would be as special for the young actors as their performances would be for their audiences. Before their week of rehearsals at the Irondale, the members of the cast, who range in age from seven to fourteen, spent a week at a musical theater camp in Ivoryton, Connecticut, and took in some of what NYC has to offer as well, from museums to Coney Island and not only seeing The Lion King on Broadway but getting to sing for its cast. You can make a donation here to support the Irondale's admirable work in helping these young artists not only to spread their message but also to have a respite from living under constant threat.
Exploring NYC. Photo courtesy the Irondale.
The play is based on stories from a book by the same title, incorporating works by Marianna Kiyanovska, Marianna Savka, Oksana Luschchevska, Tanya Malyarchuk, Halyna Kruk, and Kateryna Mikhalytsyna, which share a common theme of children's experience of separation from their parents. While the stories took inspiration from the 1990s and so feature a lot of parents who have emigrated seeking work, the parallels with the conditions caused by the Russian invasion are clear. The eponymous narrative comes first, but before the performance began, audience members and passersby were greeted by the cast singing on the steps of the venue, and, once everyone was seated, Manuel Castro, Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, delivered some brief remarks about his own experience with family separation and the need for continued support of Ukrainian organizations. After a couple of short preliminary musical pieces, one drum-driven and one slower and supported by accordion and keyboard, as well as a few preliminary snippets of children talking about absent parents, Khrystyna Hniedko performs the first narrative, told from the point of view of a girl named Sofija who lives with a neighbor but takes some solace in the illusion of presence afforded by her mother's status indicator on Skype. Her story ends up taking some unexpected turns, and on the way there, some of the other actors assemble an empty dress with a laptop for a head and face, which they animate like a ghostly puppet. Sofija also shares a song which she attributes to her mother and which includes a refrain of ne quitte pas, "do not leave." While the song is in French, the story, like most of Mom on Skype, is primarily in Ukrainian with English surtitles.
Mom on Skype at the Irondale. Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein
With short musical interludes marking the divisions between narratives, all of the cast members get a chance to be spotlighted. Valeriia Khozhempa inhabits one of a group of left-behind children who see themselves as the "kings of villages and pastures"--although others view them less generously–and who are familiar with the hierarchy attached to which foreign country a parent or parents work in (Khozhempa does some enthusiastic audience work related to this last point). Marharyta Kuzma spins a tale of the longing to investigate the house of a frightening neighbor and his mother, offsetting an anecdote about said neighbor beating a postman into a bloody heap by discussing the children's pastimes of trying to catch fish and wild chickens and making good use of fields of strawberries. Hanna Oneshchak relates the tale of a girl whom the other children regard as using tears and a pretty face to get what she wants–but what she wants is to be part of their pack. Her desire leads to a nighttime challenge that links us back to that scary neighbor and that plays out with some impressively involved funny-creepy stage business. Next up, Sofiia Goy and Anastasiia Mysiuha play sisters, one of whom, Lily, is a dreamer who likes to choose imagined families from among the people passing through their town. The pair also play–with very humorous results–a couple who live there and take home a stray dog–and so, Lily, wonders, why not some stray children? Cats infuse Nikol Bodiuk's narrative, from its comic prologue to its account of a boy who lives with his declining grandmother and fantasizes about impressing his mother by training a kitten, or maybe a whole cat troupe, to perform for her if and when she returns. Luckily for us, some cat-ear headbands enable us to see a version of this show. Also integrated into this section is the recitation of a humorous poem by Oleksii Oneshchak, the youngest member of the cast, pulled off with redoubtable rapidity.  

The show concludes with a patriotic, pro-peace song written and performed, mostly in English, by twelve year-old Hanna Oneshchak, who combines passionate delivery with technical prowess. It would be hard not to be moved by this climax, and the question-and-answer period which followed brought more emotional moments, including the sharing of images of the destruction wreaked by the invasion. One point that was repeatedly returned to: the need to continue to support Ukraine and to continue to discuss what is happening there. To contribute to this support, all proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Ukraine for humanitarian and defense efforts, and you can also donate directly to help with the goal of purchasing a fighter jet for the Ukrainian Air Force. After this weekend, Mom on Skype will move on to Hartford and Boston, so don't miss the chance to be a part of this singular example of the ways that theater can really connect us and change lives.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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