By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“My Baba has a secret,” says Ukrainian-Canadian Hania in the opening moments of Barvinok. “A secret she is bringing with her to her grave.”
As we learn in Lianna Makuch’s suspenseful and moving play, inspired by the experiences of her grandparents, it’s a secret lodged like a wound in Ukrainian history — a blood-soaked history that unspools into a never-receding past in war after war, generation after generation.
Makuch, the Ukrainian-Canadian theatre artist who plays Hania, has named her play after the Ukrainian word for periwinkle, a flower of rare persistence and resilience. And those unlikely survivors frame a story that’s beautifully fashioned from in-person on-location research by the Pyretic Productions team, including the playwright, director Patrick Lundeen and dramaturge Matt MacKenzie, who’ve been to Ukraine multiple times and workshopped the play in Kyiv with Ukrainian actors.
Across the world from the horrifying “current war” in Ukraine, Baba is confused and tormented in old age by her secret, forged in the cross-hatching World War II brutalities of the Germans and the Russians. In Act I Hania tells us about her attempts to unravel the mystery of Baba’s obsession and nightmares. The old lady is a difficult patient in a long-term care home, haunted as she is by ghosts and convinced she’s been consigned to a prison camp.
In this monologue Hania is accompanied by a five-member chorus, who sing traditional polyphonic Ukrainian music, and play Ukrainian instruments including the bandora and tsambaly. The musical score, arrangement and direction is the work of Larissa Pohoreski, and it’s a contributing player. In Lundeen’s stunning production, the painterly image of a contemporary Canadian woman surrounded by a shadowy chorus of singers and, in an alcove upstage, a woman playing the bandora, lingers in the mind.
Stephanie Bahniuk’s set design is a beautiful conjuring of memory in itself. Banks of movable, slatted wooden walls, through which light glows, open up and close. Across eight translucent windows, a projection scape (video design by Nicholas Mayne) of human faces and signs of human activity that flickers and disappears.
In Act II, Hania goes to war-torn Ukraine on the trail of Baba’s secret, and its source in another war, World War II, the violence perpetrated by Bolsheviks, and her flight on foot across borders from the German infantry in 1944. And the chorus takes on characters — the so-called “regular people” under perpetual duress Hania meets on her quest into the Eastern Ukraine war zone of 2017. Her goal: to find out what happened to Baba’s relatives.
Thanks to Google and its friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s second cousin- type connections, she travels with a couple of Ukrainian 20-something “fixers,” Misha (Maxwell Lebeuf) and Pavlo (Gabriel Richardson), both played with a kind of gallows humour ease by the actors. The buddies have a jostling camaraderie, and shaded assessments of the war effort, and its costs. Their anecdotes have a mordant, very human kind of inconclusiveness, and their reassurances to Hania always come with a throw-away proviso. “All good. You’ll be fine (pause). Probably.”
They see bombed-out ghost villages in the Donbas. They cross checkpoints, always insisting they’re neither journalists nor tourists. They see fields formerly occupied by sunflowers now by landmines. They meet wary people who’ve been constantly dislocated from their homes in the search for “a safe haven”: a mother (Kristen Padayas) whose heartbreakingly unattainable dream is simply “an apartment” so her daughter can have friends come and play; a pair of sisters (Alexandra Dawkins and Tanya Pacholok) with unexpectedly different responses to the Russian presence in this occupied territory.
And what cumulates is a remarkable group portrait of “regular people” who aren’t regular at all. Like the tiny blue flowers, they somehow live and persist under the continual trauma of bloodshed and violence. “No one wanted this,” and the cost is high. “There are good days, and there are other days,” says Pavlo, who’s been terribly injured but sticks around “to fight in whatever way I can.” Says Misha “the farther I look into the future the more tired I am…. Hope dies last.”
He calls Canada Ukraine’s westernmost state. So Hania wonders “do you have family in Canada?” Misha shrugs. “Who doesn’t?” Five years after the play’s present, in the middle of a brutal war in a country across the sea, a country that resonates as never before with Canadians in 2022, Barvinok is a special kind of behind-the-scenes achievement in theatrical storytelling. Its story is gathered from real people; it’s fascinating, enlightening, and heartbreaking to meet them. You shouldn’t miss the chance to see it this weekend before it goes on tour in Alberta.
Have a look at 12thnight’s preview interview with Lianna Makuch here.
Written by: Lianna Makuch
Directed by: Patrick Lundeen
Starring: Lianna Makuch, Gabriel Richardson, Maxwell Lebeuf, Kristen Padayas, Alexandra Dawkins, Tanya Pacholok
Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Sunday