The Interview: Frontmezzjunkies talks with Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova about the World Premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa
Punctuate! Theatre is unpacking a love story. A love story about a couple. A love story about Ukraine. And a love story against an unbelievably complicated backdrop. Starting at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, the company is ushering forth the world premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa before it spins itself out on stages across Canada. Spanning continents and set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Métis playwright and Punctuate! Artistic Director, Matthew MacKenzie (Dora Award-winning playwright for Bears, After the Fire, The Particulars) joins forces with his wife, the award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova (Odesa Film Festival Grand Prix – The Golden Duke award-winner NONNA, Two People), to tell the story of their COVID courtship and share an intimate perspective on the personal impacts of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Drawn from their real-life love story, a story that is ultimately still unfolding to this very day, First Métis Man of Odesa unpacks the journey of Matt and Masha’s love that spans continents where distance and conflicts can’t tame their passionate connection. After meeting on a theatre research trip in Kyiv, a spark is struck, and a romance between a Métis Playwright and a Ukrainian artist is ignited, taking them from the beaches of the Black Sea to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, within the onset of a global pandemic, the eruption of a brutal war, but also the many joyous moments that this union begets, including marriage and the birth of their son.
During the height of the lockdown in 2021, an initial version of this piece was presented as a radio play at Factory Theatre, written by MacKenzie and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. This March, First Métis Man of Odesa, as directed by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions/Punctuate!’s Barvinok), makes its stage debut, offering a compelling continuation of the initial story told in that first radio play. The couple, Matthew MacKenzie and his wife, Mariya Khomutova, sat down with Frontmezzjunkies and thankfully answered a few questions about their incredible journey from that first love-struck connection to its World Premiere at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.
Tell me, how you decided to embark on telling your own story and what the beginning of this creative process looked like for you two?
Initially, Matt wrote an audio play for Factory Theatre about our romance, then getting married and having our son during the pandemic. The plan had been to expand the piece for the stage, a plan that took on much urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Both the pandemic and war have a deeply dehumanizing effect, so our hope in telling our love story is to share the human side of these major world events; a human side that headlines and news clips can’t fully capture.
What aspect of your character, or your involvement with/creation of this play resonates the most powerfully inside you?
For both of us, the opportunity to share all the joy, humour, anger, and frustration we’ve experienced in the past few years is a really therapeutic process. Many of our friends and family only know snippets of what we’ve been through, so the opportunity to tell our story across the country is one we are deeply grateful for.
The phrase “you don’t know what someone is carrying with them” has really hit home over the past couple of years, as we have had to contend with some pretty epic challenges as a couple and as individuals.
Tell me a bit about what it is like to bring your character to the stage? What does mean to you to be telling this story?
We play ourselves in the play, but we very much play versions of ourselves in the play. We had to mine conflict between us out of a few outbursts, as there haven’t actually been a lot of [conflicts] in our relationship so that we could bring the drama of what we are going through to the fore.
Challenges of playing ourselves have included the fact that [Matt] is not a trained actor, while Mariya is. Mariya though comes from a theatre tradition that was almost entirely focused on the classics, so playing herself in a play based on her life is definitely a new and challenging experience!
Tell me a bit more about your development process? Was there a typical ‘first read’ or was it different, given your own story inspired the work…
We were able to conduct several development workshops over a period of six months. There was no shortage of content that we could derive from our lives, so the challenge was determining what to keep and what to let fall away. Even after our first read, we cut 15 pages from our rehearsal draft. Events in our lives and in Ukraine will no doubt continue to necessitate the evolution of our script.
What’s been the most challenging part of this process for you?
For Mariya, it was buying into the idea (that is quite a common one in Canada) that a play about someone’s real life can be art. Seeing Hailey Gillis’s My Ex-boyfriend Yard Sale, really helped her believe this was possible.
For Matt, it met the challenge of performing for the first time in ten years. The last time he performed, he made his friends promise they would never let him perform again, but all agreed it didn’t make much sense for anyone else to play him in this piece.
The most rewarding?
Having already performed several shows in Kamloops, the most rewarding part of this process is sharing this story with refugees from Ukraine. Their responses have been incredible and have really encouraged us to share our story with as many people as possible.
What do you want the audience to get from this play, and from your character?
We want the audience to join us as we relive our sweeping love story, from Odesa to Toronto. We want the audience to see the human side of the conflict in Ukraine. And we want the audience to leave the theatre with the hope that love can and will conquer all.
First Métis Man of Odesa is in Toronto for its world premiere run at the Franco Boni Theatre @ The Theatre Centre from March 30 – April 8, 2023 (opening March 31). Following the world premiere in Toronto, First Métis Man of Odesa will appear at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, The Cultch in Vancouver, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. For information and tickets, please visit theatrecentre.org/event/first-metis-man-of-odesa/