Love and art in the time of war: First Métis Man of Odesa, at the Citadel. A review

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova in First Métis Man of Odesa, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Is this real?” In love and in art it’s the smelling-salts of questions. It can get your attention, startle you, give you a pinch, make you cautious.

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And it gets asked, at every possible angle, with every weight, in First Métis Man of Odesa, a charming, very touching, boldly unconventional play created by and starring husband and wife theatre artists Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova. For one thing, in Lianna Makuch’s Punctuate! Theatre production that arrives on the Citadel’s Rice stage as part of a cross-country tour, the pair play versions of themselves in a version of their own love story — bi-continental, wildly odds-against.

Is this real? Well, their own presence onstage together at the end means that after the play the story is to be continued, backstage so to speak, in real time in the real world. And the real world by the end, against the landscape of continuing Russian atrocities in Ukraine, isn’t what it was, to say the least.

Matt, the stage version of the notable Canadian Métis playwright MacKenzie (Bears, The Particulars, The Other), tells us at the outset that he’s not an actor. We have no reason to doubt him. But it does cross your mind that his performance, stand-and-deliver, wooden in an old-growth tree sort of way, suits his particular kind of wit: deadpan, self-deprecating, based on the humour of understatement and the well-timed pause.

In this MacKenzie stands in contrast to his wife, star Ukrainian actor Khomutova, who exudes easeful theatrical charisma onstage. Her performance is supple, engaging in every puckish aside and skeptical smile to the audience. Masha is teasing and fierce, romantic in a way that “the peculiar fellow with kind eyes and a big forehead” as she describes him, is not.

They engage the audience in different ways. Métis Man of Odesa has an appealingly oddball performance chemistry that finds its parallel in the story itself. In the courtship chapter, that’s fun, and funny.

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova in First Métis Man of Odesa, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown

Romantic comedies find their love stories in the attraction of couples who are unlikely, separated by obstacles to be overcome. Here, there are hints of dark global currents in the opening scene, and the chance meeting of the pair in a theatre in Ukraine, in a workshop production of Barvinok, by Métis Man of Odesa director Makuch. It’s based on real-life interviews with volunteer Ukrainian soldiers in the 2014 Russian invasion, and their ominous (and ignored) reminders that the Russians will not stop there.

True, Matt and Masha are both ‘theatre people.’ But MacKenzie comes from the world of indie Canadian theatre, with its embrace of the personal, the real-life confessional. Masha, on the other hand, is a creature of ‘high culture’, the classical theatre and its traditions. In art, the question “is this real?” has very different meanings for them.

The beautiful and witty design, by Daniela Masellis and projection specialist Amelia Scott, is a series of frames, with allusions to the red velvet drapes, the pillars and panels, of classical theatre.  There’s a gauze curtain too, which the characters pull across the stage intermittently, as a signal of separation and disconnection, stage business that doesn’t quite land, so far, in the production.

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova in First Métis Man of Odesa, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

The banter and cross-cultural asides of the characters are amusing. “A premiere without champagne is … a field without wheat,” she teases him. In Canada, the good luck theatre mantra is “break a leg.” In Ukraine, it’s “I hope you don’t get a single feather,” equally enigmatic. I’ll just have to think about that one, and get back to you.

Mariya Khomutova and Matthew MacKenzie in First Métis Man of Odesa, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown

Hundreds of FB messages later, the Atlantic gets crossed, both ways. For Matt, Odesa means euphoric starlight strolls by the Black Sea. And his future father-in-law likes him:. “He thinks I look like Paul Giamatti. And I’m not an alcoholic.” For Masha, “Toronto is amazing!” she declares. Pause. “I can’t believe she thinks Toronto is amazing,” declares Matt.

When the pandemic enters the story, a romantic comedy darkens, and the pace gets breathless, as the production conveys. Just as Masha discovers she’s pregnant, borders close, passports and nationalities and health care become real obstacles. And in a suspenseful race to “sneak into Ukraine” amid travel restrictions, to have a wedding so that Masha can come to Canada for the birth, Matt becomes an unlikely action hero. The wedding dance to the strains of Céline Dion, feels triumphal (recounted in hilarious shared fashion by the bride and the groom). And so does the birth of Ivan. This is the COVID love story iteration of Métis Man of Odesa we heard in a 2021 podcast from Factory Theatre.

And then the tone and the pace change again. When a story is stage-managed by “the real” that’s apt to happen, of course. A couple has been propelled by circumstances into each other’s arms before they’ve gotten to know each other, beyond differing views on the colonialist residue of classical theatre. At breakneck speed they’re an insta-family, married, with a perpetually sleepless baby, living in Toronto.

Mariya Khomutova in First Métis Man of Odesa, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

Matt is suddenly a dad, with responsibilities. And Masha is a stranger in a strange land, who’s left everything and everyone thinking that it’s temporary until their return to Odesa. Which is when war breaks out, the stunningly brutal Russian invasion of February 2022. And Masha, as Khomutova conveys so heartbreakingly, is shattered, guilty about being so far from her family and her friends. For “everyone I have ever known,” life is now a matter of “Before and After,” as she says, longing for the time pre-Matt pre-Ivan “before life got real.”

The disconnect between the couple grows, not least because of the presence of Masha’s mom, rescued from Odesa. And when Matt suggests making a play from their experience, Masha accuses him of being a sort of trauma adventurer. “I’m not going to be the source of inspiration for your next play.”

We know that there’s a resolution, in love and art if not in war. We are, after all, watching that play, and Khomutova is the co-writer. What is the connection between art and life supposed to be? If ever there was a play that wondered about that relationship, it’s this one. It doesn’t fit together neatly, and director Makuch gives it room to be its own play, a captivating swirl of comedy, romance, dreams and setbacks, the personal and the geo-political. The proposition on offer, demonstrably, is that revealing the human side of terrible events in art is worthwhile, a cause for hope. And as the news rolls on, inexorably, we root for real people struggling to have a normal life.

Meet the co-creators (and stars) Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova in this 12thnight PREVIEW.


First Métis Man of Odesa

Theatre: Punctuate! Theatre in the Citadel Highwire Series

Written and performed by: Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova

Directed by: Lianna Makuch

Running: through May 13

Tickets: 780-425-1820,

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