Punctuate! Theatre’s “First Métis Man of Odesa” Touches Our Collective Heart Against a Backdrop of War and Disease

The Toronto Theatre Review: Punctuate! Theatre’s First Métis Man of Odesa

By Ross

Come on girls!” she yells out, as the potential power of reality is birthed out into the world with the simple beating heart of love and attachment at its core. This is the true-to-life tale that Punctuate! Theatre is unpacking at The Theatre Centre in Toronto. It’s a simple yet complex love story, carefully and lovingly laid out, about a couple that, in all logic, should not have made it. The almost unbelievable odds were just so against them, as oceans, continents, and other obstacles found more and more ways to keep them apart. It’s about a love story that survived, played out against an unbelievably complicated backdrop but with certainty within their hearts. Yet, it’s also a love story about Ukraine and the pain of escaping what others had to endure. Deep inside the world premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa, before it spins itself out on various stages across Canada over the coming year, the play reveals the art in the realness with an almost poetic grace that smiles sweetly on two souls that needed to be together. And gives us reason to believe that all obstacles both huge and microscopic can be overcome, that is if you believe, and wait in line long enough with the wise patience of a Canadian behind a pack of belligerent Americans.

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 on stage with his wife, the award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova (Odesa Film Festival Grand Prix – The Golden Duke award-winner NONNATwo People), to tell the story of their courtship that spanned continents and won against all odds. The two real-life centers of this intimate engagement stand before us, radiating with their real-life love in a story that is ultimately still unfolding to this very day. They deliver their tale with a sweet-natured simplicity that only deepens our attachment and care as they move further into the conflicts that try to tame and destroy their passionate commitment to one another.

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova in First Métis Man of Odesa. Photo: Alexis McKeown.

The two engagingly lead us through, playing themselves, for a journey that is as emotionally complex as it is joyous, at certain moments, during certain times. We feel their passion and their pain, even inside the humor that is so beautifully rolled out, sometimes with a somewhat stilted delivery. It’s clear that Matt is not an actor, and that fact showcases itself in his stiff movement and speech, but it’s not exactly a bad thing for this telling. It made his innocence and his awe of the woman he so tenderly fell in love with funnier and elevated his need and desire for his now-wife to a place almost more real and honest. I did have the thought that I would be curious to see how this play would translate if the love-bird parts were played by two unrelated actors. It might be fascinating to feel their spin on this couple’s complicated coupling, as we watch the moments of joy and sadness unpack themselves before our eyes. But with the true twosome, we can’t help but be pulled into their compelling continuation of a story that was initially, and partly, told in a radio play at Factory Theatre, written by MacKenzie and directed by Nina Lee Aquino.

First Métis Man of Odesa, as directed smoothly by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions/Punctuate!’s Barvinok) on a stage designed with simplicity by Daniela Masellis (Catalyst’s Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe), unpacks the tender journey of Matt and Masha’s love with straightforward efficiency. It finds clever humor and artful connection throughout, carrying with it an elegance and engagement that spans continents, indicating distance and conflicts with casual touches by design. We breathe the piece in with pleasure, as we are skillfully guided from their first meeting on a theatre research trip in Kyiv where the spark is struck.

A romance is ignited between a Métis Playwright and a Ukrainian artist that day, and we can’t help but be thankful for the invitation to bear witness to their story. The writing feels effortless, taking us with care by hand from the beaches of the Black Sea to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. We feel the complications within our hearts, as we resonate with the heartbreak that comes from trying to reconnect during a global pandemic, and with the eruption of a brutal war keeping family members in peril and dangerously apart. We are drawn in, and asked to share a very intimate and emotionally authentic perspective on the personal impacts of the ongoing war in Ukraine. We can’t look away, nor should we, as we feel, most beautifully, the impact and the power of the couple, Matthew MacKenzie and his wife, Mariya Khomutova.

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/

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