Real-life love/war story on stage

Winnie Czulinski –

Hearts and flowers are a part of it. But this love story also draws on the deaths and devastated landscapes of the Russian inva­sion of Ukraine, plus the pan­demic that gripped the world with illness and isolation.

Closed doors, cultural differ­ences, desperate measures. A romance, a pregnancy, a wed­ding. Even the bride’s moth­er living and touring with the young husband and wife. And much laughter.

The play reflecting this sto­ry, through the real-life cou­ple of Métis-Canadian play­wright Matthew MacKenzie and Ukrainian actor Mariya Khomutova, has captivated Canada. In 2023, First Métis Man of Odesa, a triple Dora Mavor Moore award-winner, played to appreciative audienc­es in 96 performances and six cities, with rave reviews.

The married duo, who now live in Cabbagetown, met while MacKenzie was engaged in workshops and theatre research in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2018. English-speaking hired actor Khomutova noted that this ac­complished theatre person was “my size and height, often si­lent, observed a lot, and not out to make an impression.”

Remotely, their friendship deepened to romance. Khomu­tova visited him in Toronto. MacKenzie met her parents in Odesa, and left Ukraine in March 2020. “We were in our own world, our own little bub­ble,” says Khomutova.

With the pandemic separat­ing them, Khomutova found she was pregnant. MacKenzie managed to get back to Odesa to wed her, to the tune of a so­cially distanced klezmer band. Now the wife of a Canadian citi­zen, Khomutova had the baby in Edmonton, MacKenzie’s home town.

They came back to Toronto, but wanted to return to Ukraine to introduce young Ivan to his grandparents. Then Russia in­vaded.

“As a playwright, I am always mining my life and the lives of people I encounter for materi­al,” says MacKenzie. “I defi­nitely had the thought (for this play) on my wild Covid flight to Odesa.” Following the invasion of Ukraine, “Our story took a turn, and we had the urgent de­sire to share with people the ef­fects of the war on our lives and our family.”

MacKenzie and Khomuto­va faced challenges in writing and staging their real-life story. MacKenzie was not an actor, while Khomutova, though a sea­soned performer, struggled with war-survivor’s guilt. “I [had] to make a character of myself, ‘Masha,’ to create a little bit of distance. Otherwise, if I am go­ing through that as myself every evening, I will go crazy.”

The stage production inter­weaves a world of war and vi­olence with scenes of lightness and laughter. From the play:

Masha to Matthew: “My par­ents love you!”

Matthew: “Your mother says I look like (American actor) Paul Giammati, and your father says I’m not an alcoholic.”

Masha: “These are huge com­pliments!”

Khomutova’s parents, who also praised MacKenzie’s large hands, call him “a hero of our time.” The play itself deeply af­fects audiences, especially those with a Ukrainian connection.

“This show is very emotion­al and honest,” Khomutova says. “You can’t lie with acting techniques, but have to be very sincere in every moment. It re­quires such energy.”

A world away from Ukraine’s war is Cabbagetown, which Khomutova fell in love with on her first visit here – parks, cafes, a kid-friendly “feeling of com­munity that was so strong in a huge city.”

Her husband, she says, sur­prises her every day with “mil­lions of ideas he has in his head, whether about theatre or our life or about going to travel some­where. I always dreamt to have someone like that, though I didn’t imagine the realistic and logistics part of it.”

MacKenzie loves how Khomutova, “deeply kind, pa­tient and gentle,” uniquely inter­acts with the world. “When we were separated during the pan­demic, it felt like a romance of old, writing Masha poetry and pining for her as we waited for travel bans to be lifted.”

Covid-19 isolated everyone, MacKenzie reflects, and now multiple world conflicts in­creasingly separate people into different camps. The couple’s home includes cultural and lan­guage differences, and a Mé­tis-Ukrainian son.

“I think that people respond positively to our love story be­cause it is celebrating (or laugh­ing at) difference,” says Mac­Kenzie. “At the same time, it’s showing people the mad contra­dictions in our lives that have led Masha and I to have a very unusual story, and a very spe­cial love.”

First Métis Man of Odesa will be at Soulpepper Theatre in May 2024. performances/firstmetisman

Punctuate Theatre (produc­tion co): https://www.punctua­

Photos courtesy Alexis McKeown