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“First Métis Man of Odesa” by Matthew Mackenzie and Mariya Khomutova

Now onstage at Toronto's Distillery District in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Matthew Mackenzie and Mariya Khomutova

Guest reviewer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, adjudicator, arts educator

“A wonder in its sheer simplicity.”

Soulpepper Theatre, in the heart of Toronto’s Distillery district, hosted a wonderful evening celebrating all things Ukraine. Not only was a fantastic play on offer but an entire evening celebrating the heritage and crisis facing the Ukrainian people. The theatre’s atrium was transformed into the Odesa Bazaar replete with Ukrainian artists and artisans showcasing and selling their eclectic offerings of hand-crafted candles, stained glass, fine art, kids’ books, jewellery, beaded embroidery, charity organizations – all helping to raise funds and awareness for the plight of war-torn Ukrainian families.

After the play, the audience was invited to remain for a post-show reception and experience Ukrainian Heritage Night, a free event celebrating authentic Ukrainian cuisine, music, and community. The Bazaar and Heritage Night were memorable bookends to a heartwarming play full of equal parts charm, wit, angst, tumult, and hope as a young couple captivatingly share their real-life love story set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“First Métis Man of Odesa” is a multi-Dora Mavor Moore award winner and was the most popular touring show in the country last year.

It’s easy to see why.

It’s relevant and engaging with an easily relatable narrative of the transcendent resilience of love defying the odds. Edmonton-Born Matt Mackenzie, a Métis playwright travelled from Canada to Ukraine to workshop one of his plays. Native-born Mariya Khomutova was one of the actors in that performance, and their romance blossomed between rehearsals and after shows. Together they recount their burgeoning romance, meeting the parents, getting married on the banks of the Black Sea, leaving Odesa for Edmonton, life in a new country, becoming parents, homesickness, relationships and what it means to be an artist in a time of crisis and what ultimately makes their bonds unbreakable.

The play just works!

It’s 90 uninterrupted minutes of pure joy and unencumbered vulnerability.

Not only are the performers instantly likeable, but their storytelling is superb, their chemistry as a real-life couple undeniable! Many of the best scenes in the show are so deeply improbable (early conversations, dates, and marriage ceremony) or so straightforwardly honest (travelling during COVID, pregnancy, war), one wouldn’t believe it as a work of fiction; but as the true stories they are, they triumph.

The simple set - a theatre within a theatre, with dramatic red curtains and glorious textiles inspired by Khomutova’s Ukrainian and MacKenzie’s Métis heritage — is perfect. Their stories are told with the help of two white chairs, a creative testament to director Lianna Makuch’s considerable talent.

Matthew Mackenzie, Artistic Director of Punctuate! Theatre, an average guy in conservative grey pants and shirt, proclaims before the show begins that he’s not an actor, but a playwright as if apologizing upfront that we weren’t getting an experienced performer, rather someone making his acting debut!

Despite his disclaimer he was thoroughly delightful and authentic. He has wonderful comic timing, heart-felt sympathy, good physicality, and a clear connection to his scene partner.

Isn’t that what every actor strives for? He’s a natural.

Mariya Khomutova is absolutely lovely as Matthew’s life partner. In simple grey skirt and blouse, she’s very much at home on the stage. Like Matthew, I found it difficult to think of her as an “actor”, so natural an unforced is her performance. She fully utilizes her excellent vocals and engaging storytelling ability with a twinkle in her eye and more than a few loving gazes to Matthew. Khomutova and MacKenzie are experts at drawing the humour out of every possible moment, building their stories around the most incongruous of details and adding to each other’s lines with perfectly timed bits of banter. They are each other’s perfect foil and perfect partner.

But it’s Lianna Makuch’s inspired, respectful, and innovative directing that catapult this production skyward. She makes the most out of the minimalist set and brilliantly creates vivid images by simply changing the positions of the two chairs. Angled to the left and Matt and Mariya are having their first date, to the right, we’re meeting their unseen parents for the first time. When the chair is toppled it becomes Mariya’s hiding place in the rubble of a war-ravaged town, then the handlebars on a bicycle. Every part of the stage is used to full effect, we never doubting where we are or how we should feel. Her clever use of the moveable centre upstage column and suspended panels is sheer brilliance. Incredibly, this is her directorial debut. I see a very bright future for this emerging artist and storyteller.

A production’s sound design needs to enhance each scene with appropriate music and sound, enhancing mood and crating auditory “images”. Edmonton’s award-winning composer and sound designer Aaron Macri’s and audiovisual group Daraba, work incredibly immersive magic. Daraba’s original scores and stings are wonderfully thematic while Macri’s ethereal drones and sound effects guide us from the joy of a beach wedding to a Russian attack on Mariupol, from airports to baby cribs. Soft and innocuous and booming and intrusive as the scene required. This team’s wonderfully understated work provides maximum impact.

Projections has always been a bit dubious for me. I’ve seen them used to dreadful effect, washing out actors' faces, or being too washed out to see the images being projected. However, they can also be used very effectively to provide context, location, and mood.

Amelia Scott’s vivid lighting and projection design is proof positive of the power of simplicity. Rather than projecting solely onto a back wall, Scott creates depth and dimension by projecting video images and animations simultaneously onto the arched proscenium resulting in an immersive tapestry that, like the music and sound, beautifully enhances but never distracts. We are taken to dozens of locations across years and continents in brilliant detail. Lighting design utilizes rich colours, shades of grey, a couple of spots ensuring that there wasn’t an inch of the stage in darkness when it wasn’t supposed to be. Kudos to the use of sharp geometric projections on the stage floor to denote the perimeter of a queen-sized bed. Dazzling!

“First Métis Man of Odessa” is a wonder in its sheer simplicity.

One wonders how, with the war raging on, this couple can expose these open wounds of grief, terror, and trauma to an audience of strangers every night. But their co-written script and the intensity of their shared performances make a bold statement; these moments are too important to forget, these stories too impossible not to share. Particularly laudable is the loving care with which the production team nurtured this narrative, lovingly elevating it to a story for our time. Khomutova and MacKenzie are resolved to return to Ukraine and perform this play in Odesa.

On that remarkable day, their son Ivan will celebrate that his parents’ love story will have been told in both his homelands.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Soulpepper and Punctuate! Theatre present
“First Métis Man of Odessa” written and performed by Matthew Mackenzie and Mariya Khomutova.
Directed by Lianna Makuch

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