Review: First Métis Man of Odesa

by Lynn on April 2, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Punctuate! Theatre in association with The Theatre Centre. Plays until April 8, 2023.

Written and performed by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova

Directed by Lianna Makuch

Designed by Daniela Masellis

Projections by Amelia Scott

Composition by Daraba

Sound by Aaron Macri

Choreography by Krista Lin

I originally heard First Métis Man of Odesa as a radio play about a year ago. It’s been updated and expanded but it’s still timely, unfortunately.

The Story. It’s about Matthew MacKenzie, a Canadian playwright/actor from Edmonton, who is Métis, and how he met Mariya Khomutova, an actress living in Kyiv, Ukraine, fell in love with her and against tremendous odds, married her. For much of the story it played out against the backdrop of COVID and the war in Ukraine.

Matthew MacKenzie and his theatre company, Punctuate! were invited to Kyiv, Ukraine in Oct. 2018 to participate in workshops and do theatre research. One of the Ukrainian actors involved in the workshops was Mariya Khomutova or Masha as he called her. She’s from Odesa.  He was very intrigued by her and she by him. He said very little during the workshops and listened. She liked that a lot and his pronounced forehead.  She would strike up a conversation after their theatre sessions and they discovered they were kindred spirits.

But after the few weeks of these workshops, he had to return to Canada.  Both thought that was the end of that, but she e-mailed him (I sense she takes the initiative to get things going) and what followed was a year long e-mail correspondence where affection was sparked and developed. Matthew MacKenzie then flew to Ukraine to see Masha and the romance blossomed. The war with Russia had not begun yet but there was the danger that that might happen.

Long distance relationships are difficult under the best of times, but this one seems fraught.  How did they cope? The power of love here was fierce.  Over time Masha visited Matthew in Toronto where he lived. She was charmed by Toronto. He was shocked at that. This show by the way is very funny.

He flew to Ukraine to meet her parents—they divorced when Masha was 12—they too fell in love with Matthew. He had to return to Canada so the long-distance relationship continued. In quick succession she discovered she was pregnant. The war between Ukraine and Russia broke out and there was COVID to contend with. All to say, that Matthew was desperate to get to Ukraine to be with Masha and marry her.

The details of this, the intricacies of the timing and the gut-twisting delays and interruptions, leave one reeling with how much tenacity it took to see this through. Eventually Matthew was able to bring Masha to Canada to begin their life together. But we get a real sense of how this separation of Masha from her family, friends and country affected her so much, since war was raging there.

Matthew was supportive, but of course he can only do so much when what Masha wants is her mother there.

The Production. Daniela Masellis has designed a beautiful set. It looks like an ornate proscenium theatre with red curtains along the top and sides in billows—as in the old world. Two appropriately ornate chairs are the only set pieces. The production is terrific for the most part.

 The script by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova, his wife, is an expansion of one they did a year ago as a radio play during COVID, to show a lot of the harrowing details of their journey.

Husband and wife just naturally play off each other. Matthew is very present and listens intently. He’s more laid back. Matthew MacKenzie is a very funny playwright and actor. He’s self-deprecating and understated. His reactions and facial expressions are just as funny as his dialogue.

Mariya also listens intently and is more direct. She is funny as well but in a different way. She states her case and stands her ground. They riff off each other and she challenges him and that’s refreshing. He laments that too often Russian classics and Shakespeare were performed. One person in the audience applauded that statement. But Masha offered a wonderful rebuttal. She loved Russian classics. She loved classics of any kind. She grew up on them and worked in that kind of theatre. They formed the basis of her knowledge of theatre. I thought her answer was pretty sound and forceful to those who have a problem doing the plays of “dead white playwrights” as if this is a real hardship and not a foundation of other work.

Together Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova have real charm. What is clear from their writing is the tremendous respect they have for each other and their abilities. They listen, consider, and try to understand the other’s point of view if it’s different.

What I thought was particularly profound about this work is that Masha puts a human face to the worry, fear and anxiety of what is going on in Ukraine, certainly in cities that are bombed. She tells a story of a friend who travelled a huge distance to Mariupol—a bombed out city—to check on her mother whom she hadn’t heard from. The determination of these people is astonishing. And of course Masha was worried for her parents in this war torn country. The worry of one partner of course has an effect on the other. How could Matthew understand what Masha was going through with her family and friends thousands of miles away? But that is the journey of the play. And there is the mundane concern of a baby who just would not go to sleep. They convey that to us as well.

It’s directed by Lianna Makuch in her directorial debut. She has a sense of humour, knows how to realize funny moments and moment of seriousness. If I have a quibble, it’s that she tends to move her actors too often. It’s not necessary to move as often as she moved them.  Stillness is effective as well. With more experience I’m sure Lianna Makuch, the director will pick this up.

All in all, I thought First Métis Man of Odesa put a human face on war, and shows the resilience of the human spirit when love is involved.

Produced by Punctuate! Theatre in association with The Theatre Centre.

Runs until April 8, 2023.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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