First Métis Man of Odesa: Liminalities, Ruptures, and Reconnections of Voice and Community in Ukraine and Canada

Moira Day*

Abstract

Based on MacKenzie’s 2021 audioplay, First Métis Man of Odesa, as written and performed by Métis-Canadian playwright Matthew MacKenzie and Ukrainian actress, Mariya Khomutova appeals on one level as a bittersweet romantic comedy. Yet in tracing the couple’s real-life transatlantic romance and marriage from the final years of the post-Maidan era (2018-2019), through the COVID upheaval (2020-2021), and most notably, the outbreak of war in Ukraine (2022-), the stage play also functions as a fluid aesthetic exploration of the larger cultural intersections between Ukraine and Canada, Ukrainian-Canadian and Métis-Indigenous communities – past and present. Ultimately, this article argues, the stage play, in production, text and the context of its times, also deepens beyond the love story of the original audioplay into an increasingly complex and often deeply moving personal and artistic journey through the harrowing liminalities of art and life, and of rupture, trauma and voice in a time of war.

Keywords:  theatre, Ukrainian, Canadian, Métis-Indigenous, Russo-Ukrainian War.

Liminalities

MacKenzie and Khomutova’s First Métis Man of Odesa [FMMO23] lists as its setting“ That liminal space between coming and going, true love and heartbreak, war and peace (TS Title page). Spatially, the play shifts fluidly between contemporary Ukraine and Canada. Chronologically, it unfolds the love story between Edmonton-born Métis-Canadian playwright Matthew MacKenzie and Odesa-born Ukrainian actress, Mariya Khomutova over the final post-Maidan years (2018-2019 – romance); the COVID crisis (2020-2021 – marriage); and the full-scale invasion (2022-present – family). As with MacKenzie’s original 30-minute 2021 audioplay [FMMO21], the couple’s story of “true love and heartbreak” (Title page) remains central to the production’s warm, humorous appeal to audiences across Canada. However, it is in the constant “coming and going” of thought, memory, image, grief, loss and voice around the two great pillars of “war and peace” (Title page) that the real power of the play lies.

Mariya Khomutova as Masha in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown
Liminalities – Ukraine and Canada

In theatre, the past often exists synchronistically with the present on stage; arguably the outbreak of the Ukranian war has similarly ruptured the lines between past and present to radically expand and redefine the liminal spaces of time, place, and synchronicity between Ukraine and Canada. In his June 10 2023 address to the Verkhovna Rada, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded Ukrainian legislators of a shared history going back to 1891 and the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants arriving in Canada largely from the older Austro-Hungarian crownlands or western territories.

As Head of State, he may also have been an embodied reminder that initially Ukrainians were recruited as part of an aggressive federal campaign to displace the original Indigenous and Métis communities on the Great Plains with “suitable” Eastern European settlers accustomed to farming in harsh, rural conditions. Significantly though, Trudeau also swiftly established an imagistic continuum between prairies past, present and yet to come, as part of a strong ongoing pledge of Canadian support. Because of “the Canada Ukraine authorization for emergency travel [CUAET] […] Ukrainian refugee students like Victoria, whose parents are dentists, [will] pay the same tuition as local kids [so she can] afford to study at the University of Saskatchewan. [Since] Ukrainians have helped us  build our country over the past generations […] it is as right as rain that Canadians will be there to rebuild your country for future generations” (Trudeau 12.49).

Volodymyr Zelensky asked Canadians to imaginatively enter a similar liminal time and space between countries when he addressed the Canadian Parliament on March 15, 2022:

Imagine that at 4 a.m., each of you start hearing bomb explosions.[…] You, your children hear all these severe explosions: bombing of airport, bombing of Ottawa airport, tens of other cities of your wonderful country. Can you imagine that?

Connelly

He ends with a direct appeal to the 1,359,655 people of full or partial Ukrainian origin – not only Canada’s eleventh largest ethnic group overall but the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world outside of Russia (“Ukrainian Canadians”): “I would like also to ask our Ukrainian diaspora in Canada” in this “historical moment” to show with your “practical support […] your practical steps […] that you are part of the modern Ukrainian history” (Connelly).

Beyond referencing the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada as a historical point of intersection, Zelensky and Trudeau transform it into a liminal space of ongoing nation-building between two post-colonial countries growing to autonomy under the shadow of powerful neighbours. In December 1991, the centennial of the first Canadian-Ukrainian arrivals, Canada and Poland became the first nations to recognize Ukraine as an independent country. The invasion has catalyzed both Canada and its diaspora into a living alliance against Russian aggression on multiple human, cultural, and socio-political fronts. As of May 31, 2023, Canada was the sixth highest supplier of bilateral aid to Ukraine, after the United States, EU institutions, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan (“Total”). As of September 30, 2023, 185,753 Ukrainians had arrived in Canada under CUAET (Government of Canada), surpassing in just over eighteen months the 170, 000 that arrived between 1891 and 1914, and the post-Soviet boom of 126,000 between 1991 and 2012 (“Ukrainian Canadians”; Umansky).

The preservation and continued practice of the arts, including the performing arts, has been important to the survival of the prairie Ukranian diaspora as a distinct ethnic community. Nonetheless, neither that diaspora nor its artistic, lingual or cultural practice has remained frozen in time. Jen Budney, the curator of the Ukrainian Museum of Canada (Saskatoon), suggests that older artifacts demonstrate a hybridization of Cree and Ukrainian patterns, designs, and colours that hint at other levels of embodied cultural and artistic interconnection yet to be synthesized into the increasingly complex narrative of being Ukrainian in Canada (14.04).

FMMO23 references a specific chronological point in time and place, while simultaneously functioning in production as a fluid, dynamic liminal space where language, colours, patterns, and human communities – Ukraine and Canada, Ukrainian-Canadian and Métis-Indigenous – meet to explore multiple human levels of rupture, change, adaptation, and reconnection. It is also an embodied knowledge that becomes further intensified by the playwrights taking the stage as their dramatic avatars, Matt and Masha, to move the original 2021 love story into an increasingly complex personal and artistic odyssey through the harrowing issues of art and life, and of rupture, trauma and voice in a time of war.

Life and Art: A Debate
Mariya Khomutova as Masha and Matthew MacKenzie as Matt in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

The first third of the play functions largely as a sprightly debate on the interface between life and art. Matt, the champion of “verbatim theatre,” a form of documentary theatre that is based on, and sometimes uses only, the spoken words of real people, quickly raises his banner as “Matthew MacKenzie […] Artistic Director of Punctuate! Theatre. I’m not an actor, but in this play—a true story, I perform the role of myself, Matt MacKenzie”(3).

As framed by a stylized proscenium arch with rich velvet stage curtains, Masha, champion of the classics as a higher, enduring voice of human “truth” in an often brutal, flawed world, allows her formidable stage presence to speak for itself amidst a neo-classical set equally eloquent in its silence: a Greek pillar evocative of the supporting backcolumns of a traditional European-style playhouse, bisects the backstage in half, and is further flanked by two matching panels of simple neo-classical symmetry. Even when visually muted from the forestage action by a scrim, the backdrop remains a constant ghostly presence.

Round One takes place in Kyiv on October 21st, 2018. Masha enters the action as “‘Yelena’ from Lianna Makuch’s ‘Barvinok’” (3) the play that MacKenzie, in conjunction with Punctuate!Theatre/Pyretic Productions, was workshopping with the help of Ukrainian actors. Matt, having just returned with his Canadian colleagues from doing research interviews at the frontline in Eastern Ukraine, clearly feels sure of his ground. Makuch (also the director of FMMO23) herself characterized as “verbatim theatre” the first half of Barvinok dealing with her own attempt as Hania to cope with her immigrant grandmother’s growing dementia and resurgent PTSD from World War II as retriggered by the 2014 war in Donbas, and the ominous silence of relatives in Eastern Ukraine (Nicholls). Makuch concedes that the second half of the play, featuring Hania’s visit to the war zone to locate lost family, featured more dramatized characters, including Ukrainian soldier-guides, Pavlo and Misha, and Yelena a young mother living in a hostel with her daughter. Nonetheless, even those characters were based closely on recorded interviews with some fifty “internally displaced persons, government officials, soldiers and many others” directly affected by the conflict (Levytsky).

If Matt, as company co-founder and production dramaturge, assumes this wealth of documentary “reality” should settle all interpretative questions, he is in for a rude shock. Masha swiftly challenges Matt to clarify the meaning behind her character’s line, “I need an apartment. Can you give me an apartment?” (3) Matt, seemingly flustered, says that he felt that the character was issuing an appeal to the West, “to the Canadian public at large” (4) to remember and help them in their forgotten conflict. Masha first counters “I don’t believe that’s what she meant,” then accommodatingly alters the words to reflect what Matt seems to suggest they meant (4). “I don’t want your donations. I want an apartment, in the West” (4). Matt, in both instances, protests that the words, as consciously and deliberately spoken by the original subject can be verified by listening to the actual tape. Further, it is important for the actress as the character to deliver those words verbatim because presumably the actual words “nothing more, nothing less” (4) can be trusted to contain and convey the meaning of the real life woman directly and accurately. However, Masha ends the argument with the formidable riposte “In Canada, you have subtext? […]It sounds like she’s saying, ‘I don’t want to answer your questions— Canada, fuck off”(4).

As Matt concludes ruefully, never argue subtext with an actress who had studied “the Stanislavsky Acting Method with a Master, who studied with a Master, who studied with Stanislavsky himself” (5).

Matthew MacKenzie as Matt and Mariya Khomutova as Masha in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

In their next sortie, though, Masha questions the human/artistic authenticity of verbatim theatre itself. She remains doubtful that “writing a play based on the real words of real people can be art” at least in part because “it’s not ‘real’, the moment you put a person’s real words into an actor’s mouth” (7). The woman speaking on the tape, in real life may have been using her words to suggest she did not want to engage further with the Canadian interviewer, but once the woman is transformed into a character in a playscript and interpreted onstage by an actress, the same words spoken in real life may be manipulated, in live performance, into an appeal to a Canadian audience that may have more to do with the playwright’s (or the actor’s) purposes than the woman’s.

Matt counters that theatre is surely at its most authentic when it is “trying to make sense of what is happening in the world […] in the here and now,”(8) and any literal loss of reality involved in transposing words from life to theatre can be compensated for “by the potential power to communicate a deeper truth through performance”(7). Masha contends that that is why combining the deeper truth of performance with the words of the “great writers [who] search for the truth […] of the soul” – for instance, a “Master” like Chekhov is so important to her as an actor (8). The argument ends in a truce: if “writing,[…] searching, […] is a necessary thing” for Matt and “the classics […] are a necessary thing” for Masha surely it is possible to simply acknowledge that “We both have needs” (8). The opening argument does raise, however, an important question that the play returns to as a leit motif: are words, whether written or uttered live, ever “nothing more, nothing less” than what they seem to be – especially in a time of war?

Masha’s critical response to the Toronto theatre scene during her 2019 visit provides a lighter interlude, but their aesthetic debate assumes a darker, more urgent edge during Matt’s next visit to Ukraine in early 2020 to conduct further interviews with women veterans as part of a second project with Makuch: Alina, a companion piece to Barvinok.

Mariya Khomutova as Masha and Matthew MacKenzie as Matt in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

Alarmed by the veterans’ repeated warnings “that it is only a matter of time before Russia launches a full-scale invasion” (14) Matt challenges Masha to consider the extent to which her beloved “high culture” is complicit in the pervasive political, economic, and cultural realities that have created it. Canada and Ukraine are similar, he suggests, in being neo-colonial countries struggling to assert their own distinctive theatrical voices in the face of an older still-pervasive imperial tradition that canonizes Shakespeare in one instance, and Chekhov in another. In Canada, he suggests, the dominance of the British tradition in the form of heavily-funded institutions like Stratford has left most Canadians unable to name even one Canadian playwright. (Ironically, the one that many Canadians could name, would be Ukrainian-Canadian, George Ryga, whose milestone 1967 play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, highlighted Canada’s shocking treatment of its Indigenous peoples.) When “it’s well-documented how the British and the Russians have used their cultural canon as a colonial weapon,” how can it be okay after “swallowing Crimea […] for the Kremlin to be funding Russian language theatres in Ukraine?” (14)

In both the May 7th roundtable in Edmonton and the June 8th 2023 interview, MacKenzie – who self-identifies as Métis of Cree and Ojibway heritage both within and outside of the play – confirmed that he was indeed using “subtext” himself, both as an actor and a well-known Métis playwright/cultural activist, to draw more nuanced parallels between the Ukrainian struggle to use art to reclaim and reassert cultural identity in the face of Russian imperialism, and what he saw as the ongoing struggle of ethnic and racial minorities – including Ukrainian Canadian and Indigenous ones – to find their own voices in a national cultural landscape still heavily invested in funding one “urgent adaptation” (TS 8) of Chekhov and Shakespeare after another. Coming from a community itself long subjected to cultural genocide and sometimes worse, Matt is quicker to perceive the 2014 invasions as a significant geopolitical rupture that cannot be ignored on any level. In short, there are multiple verbal and embodied levels to Matt’s protest that it is not possible to discuss “culture” separately from war and politics, and that instead, they should be “talking about the suppression and erasure of culture” through war and politics (14).

However, Masha remains exasperated with what she views as Matt’s over-politicization of art. As Khomutova explained at the May 7th roundtable, her pre-invasion self, actually did not view supporting both Russian and Ukrainian art as contradictory. As a bilingual artist, “studying both Ukrainian and Russian literature,” meant developing a deep love for the beauty and authenticity of Ukrainian culture on its own terms, while also becoming increasingly cognizant of the ways in which “theatre practice in Ukrainian theatre and Russian theatre was very different,” and where the methodology that Ukrainians use to “approach acting is different from Russian” (11.42).

In the decade after graduating from her more classically-oriented theatre training at the Kyiv National Theatre University (2012), she had certainly become more aware of the cultural/political ramifications of channeling disproportionate amounts of public funding, including subsidization from Russia, into large Russian-speaking theatres and theatre schools, “huge machines that were hard to change” (Interview). However, in a large culturally-rich centre like Kyiv, it was still possible to experience the war largely as a catalyst for the huge post-2014 “wave of readings, of Ukrainian plays,” of laboratories developing new plays in new stage languages, and the explosion of Ukrainian cinema “in Ukrainian, but also in Russian” (Interview).

Contrary to Matt’s implication that “high art” is, at best, a diversion from war and politics, and at worst, something more cynical and manipulative, Masha’s assertion that “Ukraine is full of culture” (14) resounds as a vindication of those structures where the higher possibilities of beauty, symmetry, transcendence – and love – can prevail in a real world disintegrating into violence and disorder. Art at its best does not simply duplicate the reality of life onstage, but remains a liminal space where divergent realities can meet, collide, clash, dialogue, and even reconcile in ways they cannot in real life.

Mariya Khomutova as Masha and Matthew MacKenzie as Matt in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

At least temporarily, Masha’s “culture and matters of the heart” trump “war or politics” (14), and the next third of the play, like the 2021 original, unfolds largely as “a captivating romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a global pandemic” (MacKenzie, FMMO2021 0.01). During his visit to Odesa the neo-classical backdrop becomes “the Odesa Opera theatre, where my [Masha’s] Grandpa’s soul still lives. He used to go every week, for forty years, even when Odesa was occupied during the Second World War” (TS 16).

The theatre retains its power as a site of intercultural transcendence when Soviet-Armenian masterpiece “Khachaturian’s Waltz” (1941)“ plays to open the show—the very same waltz” Matt had danced to with Nevy his dog,“in anticipation of being reunited with Masha” (16). The evening closes with Masha quoting a haunting passage of poetry by another twentieth-century Soviet artist, Marina Tsvetaeva (d.1941), while they dance in the moonlight to the music of Canadian singer/musician Celine Dion played by an old man with an accordion (16).

Eventually, Matt adds his own “voice” to the growing cross-cultural, transatlantic symphony of poetry, music and song that provides a “nest” for their improbable cross-Atlantic romance. He beseeches Masha as a “Red Sparrow” to fly to him, passing through “the Carpathians, where you will meet a Tomtit—who with, custom dictates, you must dance a Hopak” then over the Atlantic to the Canadian prairies until you reach Lake Win Nipee [Winnipeg], where you will meet a Chickadee, who with, custom dictates, you must dance a Métis jig” (18); and then on to amiskwacîwâskahikan [Edmonton] where they will reunite (18). Their mutual decision that “This is real” (17) is sealed by the discovery that Masha is expecting: they will wed in Ukraine, then start their family in Canada.

Matthew MacKenzie as Matt and Mariya Khomutova as Masha in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

The main antagonist of the audioplay (broadcast April 2021) is COVID especially as it aggravates the “rupture” of Masha’s immigration experience, and her personal and creative isolation. Nonetheless, it ends brightly with the birth of Ivan shortly after Masha wins a major Ukrainian film acting award; the stage play extends the denouement by showing the little family preparing for a post-pandemic future that includes travels to Ukraine.

Rupture
Matthew MacKenzie as Matt and Mariya Khomutova as Masha in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

On March 1st, 2023, a Ukrainian student attending a memorial event in Edmonton spoke of her own experience of February 24th, 2022: when she heard the first shells drop on Kyiv, her first response was to roll over and try to go back to sleep, pretending it was just thunder. She needed – even for just a few minutes longer – to hold on to the self, the life, and all the carefully-laid out plans that had been her “normal” when she went to sleep. Because she knew that as soon as she woke up it was all going to be gone (“Free”). Similarly, on June 03, 2023, Zelensky suggested that the same shells meant the self who had lived his life in five-year plans was also gone: “It is so difficult for me to believe what will be after. The same difficulty in understanding – or to believe that something was before. I’m just in this period of time. And I’m a person of this period in time” (Interview 1.15.26).

For Masha and Matt as well, February 24th is the day that the “normal” ends – and time, space, self, life and certainty profoundly rupture. As Masha says, “Everyone I have known have had their lives torn. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ ”(TS 36). Visually, that sense of traumatic fracture is most powerfully evoked by the sudden projection of roiling dark stormclouds across the set, and the fracturing of the neo-classical theatre backdrop. The proscenium stage curtain snaps and drops to the stage, the side panels snap out of alignment, and over the subsequent action, the Greek pillar is also displaced.

If the ruined set evokes any classical play wracked by Matt’s war and politics, it is older than either Shakespeare or Chekhov. Dr. Sasha Dovzhyk, a London-centered Ukrainian scholar, suggests that many Ukrainians, like herself, who viewed the 2014 invasion as a harbinger of war, often felt like “Cassandra” in the Trojan Women. Liz Nicholls’s review of a 2022 Edmonton production of Barvinok found the play’s “voice” similarly haunting and prescient given recent “[w]orld events, and a horrifying escalating brutality.”

The change also conveys a deeper fracturing of Masha’s faith in the art theatre. During Matt’s 2020 visit, the Odesa Opera Theatre had seemed an enduring symbol of the power of culture to speak across time and crisis to multiple generations. Again, in 2022, as in 1941, citizens shutter and sandbag it for protection (32). However, Andrew Kushnir suggests the theatre foremost in the minds of many Ukrainians is the Drama Theatre in Mariupol that is “now encased in construction fencing put up by the Russian occupiers.” Not only does the barrier obscure “the demolition of a theatre which, according to Ukrainian authorities, contains the bodies of at least three hundred [including][…] theatre people who took refuge at their former place of work and play,” but “the Russians have covered it in massive banners depicting Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Gogol.” He clarifies, “I will articulate in no uncertain terms: I don’t want us to cancel Russian culture.[…] it would amount to cancelling deep parts of ourselves and our artform.” Nonetheless, even if Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov “aren’t around to endorse the genocide,” it has to be recognized how they are being weaponized in the “Now” to justify the systematic silencing and “disappearing” of others.

More than that, Dovzhyk suggests, if she first became aware in 2014 of the extent to which not just the literature but the language itself had become weaponized to justify aggression, it took the 2022 invasion to turn the language “to ashes in people’s mouths” (31.44 ). If the 2014 invasion paradoxically inspired an upsurge of Ukrainian literature, culture, and language as an act of resistance against overt and covert forms of colonial assimilation and oppression, the “corrective” intervention of 2022 aimed not only at violently suppressing that resistance in older and current generations but eradicating its transmission to the next. In discussing its rationale for condemning the forced deportation of children to Russian territories as a crime against humanity as defined by United Nations legislation, the OSCE noted: “The Mission was unable to establish a single instance when even an element of the Ukrainian culture would have been allowed by the Russian authorities” (64).

Post-invasion, Masha finds that much of “high culture” has turned to ashes in her mouth as well:

MASHA: What can I create in this state of mind? Should I still be an artist? What for? Who needs this poetry, anymore?
After all those centuries with “Russian high culture”… did it save anyone? Was this “high culture” so “high” that it did it not recognize the evil that had taken hold of its core? Or was it not concerned with politics, like me, before the war?
I was so cultural…

42

In contrast to the clear hierarchies, ordered structures, and coherent narratives of “before,” self, identity and time have shattered, radically changing the meaning of both the small everyday rituals that ensure continuity, and the large, explosive changes that threaten life itself.

Zelensky, himself a former actor, has alternated between describing Feb 24th, 2022 as the beginning of a long day that never ends (Zelenskyy Address) and comparing life in war-time Ukraine to the perpetual time loop in the film Groundhog Day where the Bill Murray character is stuck in a constant present, re-living the same day over and over again (Applebaum and Goldberg; “Zelensky Compares”) – with one difference: in a world where you cannot rely on living from one minute to the next, let alone one day to the next: “when I [Zelensky] wake up, I’m already happy that I was able to wake up” (“My Next” 13.26).

For Matt, the surreal juxtaposition of the trivial and the life-shattering is contained in the last text from friends killed defending Hostomel airport: “Drank coffee. Brushed teeth. Waiting for tanks” (32). For Masha, it is in the story of a close friend who undertakes a desperate search-and-rescue mission to occupied Mariupol only to find her mother sitting quietly in her kitchen drinking tea in the midst of the chaos, bombing and destruction (35-36). “Like millions of Ukrainians,” whose lives had been “normal two weeks before” (33) Masha’s mother, Olga, finds herself sleeping on a yoga mat on a Bucharest airport floor; a routine flight delay in Warsaw leaves her terrified that Putin is also invading Poland and trying to seize the airport.

For the family, the endless time loop takes on another form. The earlier “romantic comedy” did not include the grueling daily routine around a chronically unsettled baby whose initial miraculous birth cry has turned into a constant sleepless wail. Nor did it include a live-in parent, whose constant chatter, anxiety, obsession with detail, and fierce attention to Soviet child-rearing routines are at least partially a response to her own grief, loss, and sense of displacement.

Masha earlier cautions that as “dreamers” with “rich inner worlds,” they have to emerge “every once and a while,” or they start confusing “what is and isn’t real” (21-22). Instead, the trauma of “coping” drives both of them increasingly into their own worlds. For Matt, that means retreating into the workshop of his mind to write obsessively into the night. Masha appears to be disappearing into a more dangerous liminal zone akin to the one Zelensky invited his audience to briefly enter on March 15, 2022: a place where it is possible to simultaneously imagine bombs dropping on Kharkiv and Mariupol, and hearing “with your children […] all these severe explosions” in your own Canadian city (Connelly). But the problem with living in a war zone day after day, Pavlo tells Hania in Barvinok, is that the self you become to survive in that perpetual “now” becomes less and less able to return to the “normal” and the self and life you had there (1.41.20). A concerned Matt comments, “It’s agonizing to watch her disappear inside herself. Trapped in this in-between place, she’s not here, but she’s not there” (42). The constant messaging with those left behind, and those who have also fled, combines with her compulsive streaming of horrifying news and images to spark nightmares where she finds herself and Ivan trapped in Bucha: “I write the address of my Aunt in Russia on Ivan’s back. If they kill me, maybe they will at least show my baby mercy” (38).

Matthew MacKenzie as Matt and Mariya Khomutova as Masha in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

In a scene that loops back to the initial scene and aesthetic debate, Masha, post-nightmare, echoes a line that eerily echoes Yelena’s: “I just want to do something, that’s helpful. But not donations. They don’t need donations, they need their homes, they need to be safe!”(38). Matt’s response in the “after” is also surprisingly similar to what it was in the “before.” They can help by writing a play. Continuing “from where we ended the radio play,” the story could focus on her experiencing of “the war through other people’s stories” and writing out all “the pain, the anger, the sorrow that you’re hearing about”(38).

What Matt badly miscalculates is how much Masha’s view of life and art have altered. Even in 2018, she questions whether Matt really understands the complexity and mediated nature of the interface between life and art, not just in performance but in writing: 

MASHA: So, if I want to write a play about myself, and the events that truly happened in my life, it will be art?
MATT: If you experience something remarkable enough, or terrible enough, sure.
MASHA: If I truly suffer enough?

8

She stops short of asking what quota of personal suffering and terrible, remarkable events would be required of her to meet his standards of “art”; nonetheless she implies there are aspects of Matt’s approach to “verbatim theatre” that suggest a problematic blurring of the line between life and art that is potentially as dangerous, manipulative and indulgent as he claims high culture is.

The unanswered question resurfaces in a bleaker context as Masha begins to suspect that she is dealing with a playwright who is seeking, if not exactly a new Hecuba, at least a new Yelena for his next project. At best, she protests, the result would be “an unending monologue about traumatized people” that nobody “wants to hear” (38). At worst, what strikes him as a cathartic experiencing and sharing of the war through other people’s stories, strikes her as the public exploitation of the private pain of her friends and family.

When he proposes that “We’ll continue” (38) from the radio play, does he mean, perhaps, as an extension of that original “captivating romantic comedy”? (FMMO21 0.01). That too belonged to a now-lost “before” world of “culture and matters of the heart”(14). During the 2018 Barvinok workshop Masha asks Matt “So, why did you come on this adventure?” (7). It seems a good question to ask again now:

MASHA: Is this whole thing some sort of an adventure for you? Our marriage? Our son? The war? Is it real for you? […] It’s an action adventure to you. It’s theoretical.

39

What Matt seems to be proposing as a template for their continuing life and art together, may still succeed as an escapist narrative that comforts and sustains him within his own imaginative artistic world, but where is she in it? Perhaps his own centre of truth these days lies more in his “jokes” “that for tax purposes, it actually benefits us to get a divorce and for you to claim refugee status” (36) or that after six months, his mother-in-law is less a guest than “an occupying force” (39).

At that point, the rupture becomes more than just aesthetic. She leaves, declaring “This is my life. I am not going to transform the stories of my friends’ and families’ destroyed lives into art. I’m not going to be the source of inspiration for your next play” (39). For a time, their “journeys” – aesthetic and personal – have to move in separate directions to find answers beyond the terms of the initial debate.

Voice and Trauma
Matthew MacKenzie as Matt in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

If the rupture of war has caused words and art both to fail as forward-moving actions, then perhaps one can move backwards to a simpler, safer psychic space. Matt, left to deal with Ivan and Olga, has less possibilities for retreat, but as a writer he still finds one. Significantly, the audioplay is framed as Ivan’s doting parents telling their recently-born son, presumably at crib-side, the story of “how you came to be here […] In Tkaronto” (27.30) his birth forming the triumphant climax of a three-year love story. This time, Matt actually climbs into the crib in a desperate attempt to stop Ivan’s hysterical crying, and frames the story mostly in terms of “before”: “I tell Ivan about what life was like before. Before Mama and Papa got together. Before we welcomed Vanichka. Before a war on the other side of the world turned our lives upside down…before life got real”(40). Masha retreats into the “before” of a hotel room in Niagara Falls, the site of a more idyllic interlude with Matt and Canada, that also evokes an earlier self in Ukraine free to enjoy cigarettes, champagne, and the sound of water outside.

Matt– literally – makes a crashing return from “before” to the present, when he trips getting out of the crib, cuts his head on the dresser, and faints. In the few disoriented, confused moments before he fully wakes up, he also finds himself in the same nightmare zone where it is possible to simultaneously hold in your head the idea of bombs dropping on Ukraine, and of hearing “with your children […] all these severe explosions” in your own Canadian city (Connelly): “The room is in disarray… Ivan is crying… Olga is keening… Nevy is licking my wound… Did we get hit by a missile? No. No. We are safe. In sleepy Toronto. But Masha… Masha is not here” (41). Masha, also haunted by the “ghosts” of the absent, seeks further escape by joining an excursion of Ukrainian expatriates touring the Falls. For her, the figurative “crack on the head” comes when the final burst of fireworks that she finds “fantastic” abruptly propels at least one of the party into the same liminal nightmare zone: “The people of our group say. ‘Why has she come to see fireworks if she has just come from the war?’[…] Maybe she didn’t even consider she would feel under attack at Niagara Falls” (41).

Mariya Khomutova as Masha in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

For both Matt and Masha there is a need to acknowledge that “nothing is normal anymore. Nothing will be as it was before” (41); surviving “now” – the long day that never ends – requires acknowledging and embracing the reality of the profound rupture and trauma in the being and lives of ourselves; any move towards an “after” involves reaching out to others in that same time and place of “now” and helping each other move forward. For Matt, the actual story is less important than the fact that joining his son in the crib and telling him a story, stops the constant hysterical crying, from whatever point of inarticulate nightmare it is coming from, allowing the child to finally sleep. Masha responds to girl’s rocking and crying by reaching out and holding her close: “Her chest heaves against mine, her heart trying to escape so much pain…”(41).

So, the play at last circles back to try to answer its initial question: what is the relationship between life and art, personal and artistic voice in a time of war, of profound rupture, dislocation and trauma? Matt concedes that framing their relationship in the familiar, adrenalin-pumping narrative of an “adventure” was partially a way of “coping” with his anxiety over a relationship and situation developing too quickly to be sure they were “real.” But the writing and the storytelling were never just about “pretending and playing” (39). Writing is an essential expression of “voice” that helps him hold on to his sanity; turning it outwards into storytelling helps other people and communities hold on to theirs. Matt acknowledges his jokes are not always good – but laughter, even from bad jokes, can be a way of affirming and celebrating life, humanity and agency in the face of that which tries to extinguish them: “The constant jokes […] Talking her into writing this play was an attempt to coax her out.[…] I don’t want what’s happening over there, to extinguish you (Masha) here” (42).

Masha confesses that she remains uncomfortable with the disconnect between the “truth” of people’s actual lived experience, and “art” that purports to portray the “truth” of actual people’s lives and words:

MASHA: I didn’t want to write this play.
I felt empty and torn.
All I had inside was a reflection of the war.

42

But living indefinitely in that inner space of inarticulate grief, guilt, anger and suffering was not possible either:

MASHA: But I don’t want to hate. I don’t want to kill.
I want to stop this war. What can I do?
If I don’t have a gun, then what is my weapon? Words?
A voice?

42

In his lecture at the March 1st 2023 Memorial event, University of Alberta post-doctoral fellow, Alex Averbuch talked about the centrality of “voice” to an initiative launched through the University of Alberta Kule Folkore Centre on February, 2022: “Testimonies of civilians in Ukraine about the Russian-Ukrainian War.” While mandated “to provide a documentary source for researchers, academics, students, journalists, artists, and the public in general” (“Testimonies”), on a more visceral, immediate level, he suggested, the project allowed ordinary people to speak, be heard, and go on record as individual human beings in the middle of war conditions designed to extinguish, silence, or dehumanize them (Averbuch).

MASHA: I’m not going to be silent.
I’m not going to stuff it inside anymore.
I have to speak.
And I don’t care if it’s art or not.
My voice means something.
My life means something.
I’m here.
And the people who live inside of me; they are here. And their stories have value, too.

TS 43-44
Liminalities – Ukraine and Canada

Using art as a way of finding and recovering personal and cultural “voice” in the midst of trauma, rupture and war remains an ongoing project shared by the Ukrainian, Ukrainian-Canadian, and Indigenous/Métis communities. Budney confesses herself impressed by the number of people who have “arrived recently on account of the war and […] young women in particular” who still practice forms of embroidery and weaving seen in the museum, and “are still committed to keeping those customs and those practices alive” (3.00). But perhaps that is not so surprising:

I’ve done a lot of work here myself here in Canada working with First Nations artists over the past twenty-five years and I know that first practicing your culture is one way to survive and forge a path through those horrible processes of colonization. And I think that in Ukraine because that area of land in Europe, in the centre of Europe, the bread basket of Europe has been repeatedly colonized over and over and over again for the last more than one hundred years that this is part of what keeps Ukrainian culture in Ukraine so strong.

3.20

Reflecting in 2023 (“Bridging”; “STORYING”) on her 1977 classic All of Baba’s Children Ukrainian-Canadian writer, Myrna Kostash, felt her earlier history of the Ukrainian-Canadian community had not done enough to acknowledge the impact of those older cultural and intergenerational ruptures and trauma. Her goals were meritorious: to tell the story of her own family as Ukrainian-Canadians in Alberta and where she situated herself within that narrative, while exploring the history of the larger Ukrainian-Canadian community. However, by critiquing and deconstructing many of the accepted historical narratives and mythologies in isolation from the rupture and trauma that the original generation – on both sides of the Atlantic – had suffered as part of the immigration process, and the rupture and trauma that their settlement on the prairies had simultaneously caused the original indigenous community, she had inadvertently perpetuated some of those mythologies herself: “[W]ith neither the ancestral [Ukrainian] nor Indigenous Peoples visible or legible to me, the Ukrainian Canadian imaginary was a set of symbols and activities rooted entirely in locations made-in-Canada such as historical sites, community and church halls, summer camps, weddings, dance festivals” (Ghosts 7).

One solution, as suggested in Ghosts in a Photograph, was an extended journey similar to Makuch’s in returning to her family’s original community in Ukraine and refinding the parts of her community, family, self and “voice” that she had not even realized were missing. The second was to help found the Indigenous-Ukrainian Relationship Building Initiative, the group that co-organized with Punctuate! Theatre the roundtable after the May 7th, 2023 performance in Edmonton.

At that time it was suggested that if the interconnections between the two groups included similarities in the use of colour, beadwork and embroidery, they were also represented by crossovers in drama and literature – and a continuation of the dialogue started in the play about the need to find an authentic theatrical “voice” to express and heal trauma across communities especially in a time of war. One person at the forum who self-identified as a “Ukrainian Canadian playwright and storyteller” commented to Khomutova that she also had “been thinking deeply” about how to “tell stories in this time of intense trauma for our community in a way that is safe.” She too had moved “to telling my own story because that’s a story that I have control over and I’m not putting anyone else’s emotional vulnerabilities at risk.” But knowing how “intensely difficult” that was, “I just want to laud you for your bravery in putting your own story on the stage” (1.01.32).

Khomutova responded:

The most famous Ukrainian playwrights are discussing the same thing: how to write about the war in conditions of war. […] And I think it correlates with your experience and our experience […] The most newly written plays are voices just of personal experience of every single playwright. They’re not writing about others – […] it’s very rare. They’re just writing about what they have gone through.

1.04.22

The result was a kind of intimate theatre not really designed “for big stages.” But perhaps those stories “have to start from small, small spaces” before they can “become something louder and bigger. […] That’s the only possibility how we can go through this trauma and how we can heal ourselves and heal others” (1.05.22).

In terms of “healing others” the playwrights were asked about audience response to the production. MacKenzie said that he loved “the hyperspecific dramaturgy from the Ukrainian-Canadian community” (Interview): one audience member in Toronto indicated that the tomtit would not be dancing a hopak – a dance from central Ukraine – in the Carpathian Mountains, but a regional dance about moving into the sunlight. In Vancouver, an Indigenous person suggested that maybe he should “speak a little more to the genocide that’s occurred amongst the indigenous peoples here” (Interview). For those who had arrived recently from Ukraine, some, by their own admission, were triggered to tears by the material, while one fellow-Odesan claimed that seeing her story presented onstage actually allowed her to release all her accumulated stress in laughter (“STORYING” 1.03.26).

MacKenzie, noted that what impressed them most, though, was the number of people, Indigenous, Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Canadian who came out to see the show and stayed to talk afterwards. In Toronto alone, “people stuck around and spoke with us for two hours after almost every performance […] so it really felt like the show was part of a larger conversation” (Interview). Equally striking, were the many people they met “who have Ukrainian and Indigenous blood” and were “very happy to introduce themselves as both” (“STORYING” 41.16). In that regard, a particular highlight, was the play’s first staged reading at Smoky Lake, a small town in East-central Alberta. Performing before an audience that was almost completely Ukrainian and Métis, made it a great place “to start our journey” (Interview). Métis poet, Naomi McIlwrith, further notes, “I can’t think of any more profound way to have a connection.” Especially during a time of war, people like her stand as an embodied reminder that our ancestors often made “love instead of war” (“STORYING” 36.15).

Liminalities – Closing a Circle
Matthew MacKenzie as Matt in First Métis Man of Odesa by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, directed by Lianna Makuch. Punctuate!Theatre. Spring, 2023. Photo: Alexis McKeown

For Myrna Kostash, Ghosts in a Photograph was meant to “close a circle” begun forty years earlier with All of Baba’s Children (“Bridging” 17).“Going in circles” can mean unwittingly looping back to the start and following one’s own tracks in increasingly disoriented circles while assuming one is moving forward. By contrast, “closing a circle” implies spiraling back to complete what was started but at a higher place of wholeness, awareness, and healing. Budney similarly suggests that moving forwards might simultaneously involve circling back to recover, renew, and regenerate older patterns, traditions, and celebrations not as “artifacts from the past” but as valued and purposeful ways of “sustaining life, and […] preserving community” (11.32).

FMMO23 in a way loops back to its start: that liminal space between coming and going, true love and heartbreak, war and peace (TS Title page]. There is no “closing of the circle” on the war, no resetting of the clock that can restore people to the lives and selves they had before; in that sense, the long day that began on February 24th, 2022 continues.

But the couple has also come to realize that as people they cannot go on living indefinitely in that “in-between place” (42). In Barvinok, Pavlo tells Hania that his own war time marriage ended because: “Tatiana wanted to move on. But I – couldn’t. I can’t” (1.19.57). Moving on together means that regardless of what is happening in the outside world, they “have to stay out of [their] brains” and away from the deadly spin into “fantasies” and “disappearing” (43) – and stay grounded in the “real”:

(MATT takes MASHA’s hands.)
MATT: This is real.
MASHA: This is real. I need you.
MATT: I need you too.

44

In terms of the aesthetic argument, there is no return of the backdrop to its original form, but Masha’s quiet tidying away of the torn curtain, and realignment of the Greek column suggests the stage is moving into preset for some action yet to come.

And so, they live in hope that a new season will bring peace again, and that when “the long day,” finally ends, time will restart and begin to move forward once more, allowing the long-delayed trip back to Odesa so Ivan can meet his Ukrainian grandfather. More profoundly, Ivan himself is a sign that the next turn of the cycle towards new life and growth is already in motion. This, in turn, drives the hope that in the larger world as well time will move beyond the monotonous, futile circles of Groundhog Day and more fully into the larger, regenerative cycles of new and returning life: love and poetry will return in the form of “two little birds” (45) who will start the long flight back from the Canadian prairies to Ukraine, stopping to dance a ritual Métis jig and hopak along the way, and with them will fly their embodied hope for the future, their “squeakling,” “our laughing, dancing, little star through this war” (45):

MATT: Then, you will have come full circle, Vanichka.
MASHA: First Métis man of Odesa.

46

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*Moira Day is a professor emerita of Drama at the University of Saskatchewan. A former book editor and co-editor of Theatre Research in Canada /Recherches théâtrales au Canada she has published and lectured widely on Canadian theatre, with a particular focus on women and prairie theatre prior to 1960.

Copyright © 2023 Moira Day
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