The Big Band Theory: Lemon Bucket Orkestra stages a raucous interactive protest play at SummerWorks

The Big Band Theory: Lemon Bucket Orkestra stages a raucous interactive protest play at SummerWorks

Lemon Bucket Orchestra's Counting Sheep comes to Summerworks
(Image: Eamon Mac Mahon)

Counting Sheep, the immersive stage show from the band Lemon Bucket Orkestra, abandons the stage altogether. The play is more like a dinner party: the cozy audience sits along two rectangular dining tables arranged into a T. As they tuck into open-faced sandwiches, buckwheat porridge and borscht, a chorus of Ukrainian folk singers belts full-blast, standing at the table’s end. Audience members are then roused from their seats to the oompahpahs of eastern European party music, which sounds like klezmer laced with croaky horns and handclaps.

The show, which gets a staging this month at SummerWorks, is exactly the kind of wackily poignant stunt people have come to expect from the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Toronto’s foremost (okay, only) Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk band. The 17-member collective features trumpets, a sousaphone, drums, a violin, an accordion, an alto sax, and a random assortment of other honking and clanking instruments that together sound like an international junkyard band. In buttoned-up Toronto, they stand out as brash, sexy, lawless rebels.

Lemon Bucket’s history goes back to the mid-oughties, when the founder and front man Mark Marczyk spent two years teaching English in Ukraine. Marczyk, who’d studied violin as a child, fell in love with Ukrainian folk music—songs that were rough, ragged and deeply moving. He loitered on the fringes of various music scenes, busking on the streets of Kiev and impulsively jamming late into the night with his friends. When he returned to Toronto, he found himself looking for the kinds of magical musical moments that seemed to happen all the time in Ukraine.

He found a kindred spirit in Michael Louis Johnson, a Toronto musician and long-time bartender at the Communist’s Daughter. Johnson had recently spent time touring festivals in Serbia and shared Marczyk’s affinity for spontaneous public performance. One night, after last call, Johnson pulled out a trumpet and serenaded the bar’s last remaining patrons with a Louis Armstrong number. Once everyone else had gone, Marczyk and Johnson drank and talked about possibilities until dawn.

Johnson connected Marczyk with the gypsy-punk band Worldly Savages, which he joined as a fiddler. Crowds gathered not only for their eastern European folk tunes but also to down shots of Balkan slivovitz at their post-show parties, then carouse through city streets bellowing rowdy bursts of late-night song. These jam sessions melded punk rock, klezmer, jazz and gypsy brass. Some people would bring their own instruments and multiculti sensibilities—an accordion player from France one night, a Mexican percussionist the next. Soon, Marczyk had teamed up with his new friends to form another band. They anointed themselves the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, after lemonchiki, Odessan gangster slang for money, and the buckets buskers would set out on the street while they were performing.

Audience-recruiting shenanigans became Lemon Bucket’s signature; the world was their venue. On the cusp of their first European tour, when their Air Canada flight to Frankfurt got delayed, the group’s members whipped out their instruments and led their fellow passengers in a rousing, aisle-dancing chorus. They also found early enablers in people like Shamez Amlani, the owner of La Palette, who would invite the band to perform at his Queen West bistro before shepherding both musicians and spectators onto the street, directing merry parades. As Lemon Bucket’s popularity increased, so did their invitations to play the city’s more venerated venues—the Opera House, Koerner Hall, Roy Thompson Hall.

Counting Sheep was inspired by the Maidan revolution in Ukraine—rather than showing people what the uprisings looked like, Lemon Bucket wants audiences to live it. The show is loosely based on Marczyk’s own experience: last year, he returned to Kiev to work on a film, arriving during the height of the anti-Russian uprisings in Maidan, the city’s central square. He began attending protests, where Marichka Kudriavtseva—a Ukrainian musician and ethnomusicologist—would perform with a choir. Soon the two struck up a friendship, which quickly turned into a romance as they accompanied one another from protest to protest. “When you’re in that kind of situation with anyone, you immediately see how they react to make-or-break moments,” Marczyk explains.

Amid the chaos, the couple collected and distributed medical supplies to protesters on the front lines: surgical masks lined with lemon to protect against tear gas attacks and gauze to treat open wounds. On February 20, when riot police began firing into the crowds from overhead, Marczyk and Kudriavtseva donned bullet­proof vests and darted between bodies and ambulances to refortify the barricades. In the week that followed, they attended back-to-back funerals for the political martyrs who’d come to be dubbed “the heavenly hundred.”

Marczyk returned to Toronto, assembled the band and flew back to Ukraine almost immediately. His aim was to whip up a script that could convey the full impact of the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. While in Europe, he and the band worked with Kudriavtseva to map out a performance piece that combined liturgical chants and hymns and Ukrainian folk music with Lemon Bucket’s party-for-the-people bombast. They returned to Toronto late last year with Kudriavtseva (she and Marczyk married in a Ukrainian-style village wedding at Dufferin Grove in May). They also workshopped their play, which debuted at U of T’s St. Vladimir Institute last January and sold out almost immediately.

Immersive theatre is the latest craze among Toronto avant-garde stage geeks. The productions take place in parks, warehouses and streets, blurring the boundaries between audience and performer. From the outset, Counting Sheep gets the gonzo theatrics right. The evening begins with a Ukrainian celebration of food and folk songs. As the music swells, the strangers-turned-diners-turned-allies might link arms and do the kartoshka, a traditional folk dance. Later, the feast will be interrupted by violence and protest—videos from the Maidan uprisings are projected on the walls while Lemon Bucket musicians playing protestors and riot cops duke it out. Audience members will get makeshift shields and, with encouragement from the performers, conspire to hurl foam bricks at actors pretending to be baton-thwacking police.

Clever staging aside, it’s the music that does much of the work. It’s nearly impossible to encounter eastern European folk music and not be transported. The band’s spooky modulations and otherworldly ancestral howls are at once guttural and gutting. Their embrace of messy communalism creates something unexpected: a sense of ragtag refuge. By turning a group of ordinary Torontonians into comrades hand in hand, Lemon Bucket might just pull off the most daring theatrical feat of the summer.

Monday, August 10 to Sunday, August 16. $15–$25; festival passes from $40. Great Hall Blackbox Theatre, 1087 Queen St. W., 416-628-8216,