By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“The universal desire, the need, desire, to understand who you are, where you came from….”
That’s what drew Ukrainian-Canadian playwright Lianna Makuch across the ocean to her ancestral homeland. And that quest was her creative inspiration, too, as a theatre artist — witness the play that returns to Edmonton Thursday in its latest iteration to launch Pyretic Productions’ Alberta tour. “It reflects my own journey,” says Makuch of Barvinok, Ukrainian for periwinkle, a beautiful, resourceful, stubbornly indestructible flower. “I had never really thought my Ukrainian identity could shape my artistic career. Creating this story allowed me to understand….”
To be Ukrainian-Canadian is to be haunted by a war-ravaged past, centuries of bloodshed, as Makuch mused over pre-rehearsal coffee in the sunshine couple of weeks ago. Barvinok has its roots in a secret — carried across two continents, and kept for a long time — and a life-changing discovery.
In 2013, the year before the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, Makuch, a Ukrainian speaker who grew up immersed in the culture, came across a hand-written book in her dad’s basement. It was a 1944 diary in which her paternal baba recorded a nightmare flight, on foot, from her war-torn homeland. There was a reverberating eloquence to the writing of this smart, artistic, but uneducated woman. “What spoke to me especially,” says Makuch, “was this, ‘how can our land not be fertile when so much blood, both Ukrainian and foreign, has seeped into it?…. It shows that our enemies must love our land more than we do, for they fight for it ceaselessly.”
A playwright, and a play (then called Blood of Our Soil) was born in that discovery. Creating new work wasn’t a radical departure, of course, not for a graduate actor in Edmonton. “I’d done some Fringe stuff, as you do …” smiles Makuch, who has a BFA from the U of A. She was an “apprentice performer” on Mump and Smoot’s Cracked tour, “a really valuable experience as a theatre creator.”
But the diary was a powerful confirmation, and motivator. Makuch and her Pyretic cohorts director Patrick Lundeen and dramaturge (and fellow playwright) Matt MacKenzie went on location in Ukraine in 2017, to research.
They found the house of Makuch’s grandmother, still surrounded by periwinkles, “the flower that can withstand anything,” as Makuch says. They visited her grandfather’s village, and the grave of her maternal grandmother, who’d been abducted by Germans. They drove over country back roads with potholes big enough to swallow a car, and they arrived within 5 km of the front line of the war in eastern Ukraine — another brutal Russian invasion in a war that has never really ended.
Thanks to a 2016 Latitude 53 exhibition of portraits of wounded Ukrainians, Makuch had found a “fixer”/contact who connected Pyretic to a network of veterans. And they met up in person on that trip. Lundeen whose purchase on the Ukrainian language amounted to Merry Christmas, went to board games nights with actors and veterans. “A lot of people thought we were journalists at first and were, understandably, wary,” says Makuch. “When they found out we were theatre artists, the reaction was very very different….”
The first part of Makuch’s play in 2018 was “verbatim theatre,” she says. “In the second part, more episodic, we met characters…. And there was definitely more opportunity for development.” So the next year, the collaborators went back to Ukraine to workshop the play at the Wild Theatre in Kyiv, with Ukrainian actors and an audience mostly of diplomats, veterans and activists. “People were so appreciative, so grateful to not be forgotten,” Makuch says of the role of the Ukrainian diaspora. The take-away was that “people didn’t want to be seen as victims.”
The Edmonton premiere in the fall of 2018 took that into account. And Barvinok, as it was re-named in honour of Ukrainian resilience, played Tarragon’s Extra Space in Toronto after that. “Every time the play has been done it’s been its own iteration,” she says of a play she’s re-written and Lundeen have since re-staged for the Westbury Theatre and the tour. “The story has evolved; the heart of it is the same.”
The first half of Barvinok we meet Hania, like Makuch (who plays her) a Ukrainian-Canadian trying to understand her cultural inheritance. “A single speaker,” says Makuch of the first act, “with old world folkloric music assembled by Larissa Poho,” and played by the six-member chorus on traditional Ukrainian instruments like the bandora and tsambaly, in addition to accordion, guitar, and violin. In Act II, the ghostly chorus become individual characters.
The ending has inevitably changed, in new context if not in text. World events, and a horrifying escalation of brutality have seen to that. Climactic lines of 2017 are still in the play. “We are like passengers sitting on our suitcases waiting for the train to come … and the rest of the world, Europe, just watches. They send their best, though.” Makuch sighs. “But they resonate even more in our new world.”
“I’m not a soldier. Creating theatre is what I do, and I’m using what I do to tell a human story.. The news has its place. But with theatre you have the opportunity to tell a human story, to (evoke) emotional empathy.” And a film version is in the works, thanks to funding by the Shevchenko Foundation.
All performances of Barvinok at the Westbury are pay-what-you-will, on a tiered ticketing system.… “I don’t want to cost to prevent anyone from attending,” says Makuch. “And there are many Ukrainian newcomers to the city….” A portion of ticket sales will be donated to Ukraine support.
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 Sept. 25