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At Comedy Shows in Lviv, Crowds Search for Humor Amid a Deadly War

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LVIV, Ukraine — Some morsels of reports are so grim and absurd that they sound like they were conceived within the warped imagination of bored satirists. Just like the headline from Belarus a number of weeks ago, reporting that tenth graders there have been being taught find out how to aim rifles — using shovels.

“What do you concentrate on that?” asks the comedian Vadym Dziunko.

Dziunko is onstage with two other comedians and a well known singer. All are seated and holding microphones, gamely trying to seek out humor in a spot and at a moment when the tragic is trouncing the funny by a spectacular margin.

It’s a recent Saturday night on the Cult Comedy Hall, a comedy club in downtown Lviv, near Ukraine’s relatively peaceful western border. Some 100 people have spent about $13 apiece to eat, drink and hearken to comics riffing about whatever crosses their minds, which is usually the most recent news in regards to the war with Russia. Or within the case of this shovel-as-rifle business, the subject is the oddness of life in Belarus, a dictatorship a mere 150 miles to the north.

“What do you expect from a rustic where a potato is a weapon?” says the comedian Oleksandr Dmytrovych. Then he imagines an instructor, giving tricks to the youngsters.

“‘We will’t offer you rifles yet — —”

“‘Because we only have one,’” finishes the third comic, Maksym Kravets.

That is Cultural Defense, a night of unscripted and free-flowing humor staged in Lviv every few nights. It began two weeks after the Russian invasion, when Kravets, a Ukrainian intelligence officer by day and a comedian by night, called the co-creator of the show, Bohdan Slepkura, and identified that the Cult Comedy Hall was in a basement.

“I said, ‘You understand, the place is a bomb shelter,’” recalled Kravets, a burly and bearded 42-year-old.

Kravets, wearing a T-shirt with “Wildness” on it, and Dmytrovych were sitting in one other room within the club after the show recently. Initially, they said, they were undecided anyone within the country was within the mood for chuckles. The shock of the invasion was then fresh and a whole bunch of 1000’s of residents from the eastern a part of the country were flowing into town.

“Before the primary show, we thought, perhaps this isn’t the precise time for comedy,” said Dmytrovych, who’s 30 and bearded, too. (“Without beards we’re ugly,” he explained.)

“We were petrified,” he went on. “But after the primary show, we got here and sat on this room and realized, people wish to laugh. They wish to hear jokes about our enemy. From that first night, we understood this could be larger than we had thought.”

There was exactly one international breakout star in Ukrainian comedy and he happens to be the president of the country, Volodymyr Zelensky. If this puts pressure on others within the business, it wasn’t obvious onstage on this Saturday, when no person seemed especially pressed to land on a punchline and a singer, Mykhailo Khoma, spent quite a lot of time ruminating about his childhood.

Ukraine has long had a modest live-comedy scene, though anyone accustomed to the usual setup at American clubs will find novelty within the show’s format. There’s no warm-up act, and at no point is anyone standing onstage alone. There are different guests every night. The evening starts with 4 men leading a raucous call and response in Ukrainian, like the remainder of the show.

Hosts: “Glory to the Nation!”

Audience: “Death to enemies!”

Hosts: “Ukraine!”

Audience: “Above all else.”

Hosts: “Putin!”

Audience: Unprintable putdown!

After that, the celebrities take their seats and begin to speak.

A few of the humor is self-deprecating. In a previous show — they’re all available on YouTube — Dmytrovych riffed in regards to the news that Ukrainian soldiers had mastered a “single use” antitank missile called an NLAW. This was amazing, he said, because by nature and necessity, Ukrainians are accustomed to reusing all the pieces, again and again.

“I got slippers in a hotel in Egypt a yr and a half ago and I’m still wearing them,” he said. “After they got dirty, I washed them. After they fell apart within the washer, I glued them together. Now these are slippers I offer to guests.”

There are many jokes on the expense of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who’s scorned as a blustery idiot who underestimated the spirit and resolve of Ukrainians. The Russian military, alternatively, is basically spared. The purpose, explained Dmytrovych, isn’t to belittle the invading forces, which Ukrainians regard as formidable and horrifying. It’s to lift the spirits of people that will not be on the front lines, or who might need once lived near the front lines and have since relocated.

So during one show, Kravets extolled the surprisingly polished great thing about checkpoints in Lviv (“I might not be surprised in the event that they served lattes”), a few of which have exceptionally long lines. (“I believed in the beginning they’d take my order and at the tip I’d be handed a Big Mac.”)

Internal politics are a recurring theme. During a show a number of weeks ago, a poll was cited that found 90 percent of Ukrainians want to hitch the European Union.

How the Ukraine War Is Affecting the Cultural World

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Valentin Silvestrov. Ukraine’s best-known living composer, Mr. Silvestrov made his way from his home in Kyiv to Berlin, where he’s now sheltering. In recent weeks, his consoling music has taken on latest significance for listeners in his war-torn country.

Alexei Ratmansky. The choreographer, who grew up in Kyiv, was preparing a latest ballet on the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow when the invasion began, and immediately decided to go away Moscow. The ballet, whose premiere was set for March 30, was postponed indefinitely.

“What’s the very first thing you’ll do after we join the European Union?” an onstage guest asked.

“Search for the ten percent who didn’t want to hitch the European Union,” deadpanned Dmytrovych. “Who’re these people?”

The shows double as fund-raisers for Ukraine’s war effort. Every performance is live-streamed on YouTube and viewers can send donations online. Throughout the evening, a bunch who’s offstage shares details of a number of the larger donations, together with messages for the performers. On this Saturday night, one donor needled the hosts for the scarcity of jokes.

The goal for the evening was to lift enough money to purchase a automobile for border guards, and by the point the audience headed home, about an hour before the war-imposed 11 p.m. curfew, the goal was nearly reached. Over greater than 50 shows, Cultural Defense has raised near $70,000.

The gang at these shows skews young, with most within the 20-to-35-year-old range. There are rows of seats packed near the stage and tables within the rear for many who wish to sample Cult’s menu, which, somewhat incongruously, leads with an extended list of sushi offerings, including rolls and nigiri. Briefly interviews before the show, a number of spectators said that the onslaught of depressing news made laughter seem essential.

“I feel it’s a 3 for one,” said Petro Diavoliuk, who was drinking and eating with friends. “All the cash goes to the Army, people chill out and it’s cheaper than a shrink.”

Even here, though, reality intrudes. A couple of minutes before the ultimate ovation on this Saturday night, quite a few mobile phones concurrently began to emit the classic air raid siren, that rising and falling sound that may be a staple of each World War II movie through which soldiers scramble ahead of an attack. Everyone checked their phones, and opened an app — several can be found — that tracks government warnings about missile strikes.

“Warning! Air alarm!” read a text in each Ukrainian and English on a Telegram channel called Notifications CD, for civil defense.

No one seemed remotely concerned, and the flow of onstage chatter didn’t pause for a moment. Air alarms are pretty frequent in Lviv; there have been 10 during Cultural Defense shows. And anyway, the place is a licensed bomb shelter. If there have been real danger, this could be a tremendous place to attend it out.

An hour or so later, well after the show had ended, a second message appeared: “The air alarm is stopped.”

During a post-show interview, each comedians said they hoped the war ends before the autumn, for purely careerist reasons. They’ve got some corporate gigs lined up in other countries and so long as hostilities rage, men are barred from leaving the country.

This was a joke. Humor in Ukraine is each a prayer for normalcy and a type of resistance. It’s also, by some means, uniquely fortifying. As Dmytrovych put it, “For so long as we’re laughing, we’re not giving up.”

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