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FIRST METIS MAN OF ODESA featuring Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova in First Métis Man of Odesa.Alexis McKeown/Supplied

  • First Métis Man of Odesa
  • Theatre Centre in Toronto to April 8; the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton from April 22 - May 13; The Cultch in Vancouver from May 25 and June 4; Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon from Oct. 11 to 29; Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg from Nov. 1 to 18
  • Written and performed by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova
  • Directed by Lianna Makuch

First Métis Man of Odesa, a Punctuate! Theatre production now on at Toronto’s Theatre Centre ahead of an extensive Canadian tour, is a charming romantic comedy that gets invaded by the war in Ukraine.

In form, as in content, it is a simple and effective play about ordinary lives that are completely upended by a Russian invasion – and yet continue to be ordinary in other ways. Banal arguments erupt with in-laws and babies are sleep-trained even as bombs fall on the site of early scenes.

This was not the original plan for the show.

Edmonton playwright Matthew MacKenzie first told the true tale of how he met Mariya (Masha) Khomutova, his Ukrainian actor wife, in an audio drama released by Toronto’s Factory Theatre in spring of 2021.

It had the same title as the current stage play, except Odesa had an extra “s” at the time – a reflection a preinvasion times when Russian transliterations of Ukrainian place-names were more commonly used.

The couple’s how-we-got-together story was, and is, funny and thrilling.

The two fell in love over a year-long exchange of e-mails after briefly meeting on a theatre project that took MacKenzie to Odesa in 2018. Then, two surprises after a reconnection: a pregnancy and a pandemic.

MacKenzie rose to the occasion as an unlikely kind of action hero, and the ending of his original podcast play was a happy one even if the future remained uncertain.

But the world continued to spin after 2021 – and on Feb. 24, 2022, not long after MacKenzie had started work on a stage adaptation of his love story, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. The pandemic was “over,” but this theatrical project had to pivot.

The First Métis Man of Odesa now on stage sees both MacKenzie and Khomutova credited as the writers – and the pair are also the stars of director Lianna Makuch’s production, performing the roles of Matt and Masha. (That is to say, a theatricalized version of themselves.)

It begins similarly, depicting Matt and Masha’s first meeting in prepandemic, prewar Ukraine. Matt, a seventh-generation Edmontonian who is also a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, is interviewing volunteer squadrons in the east who warn of the inevitability of a full Russian invasion.

In a conversation with Masha, he goes on a rant about how high culture can be a tool of colonialism. He compares the fact that most Ukrainians can’t name a Ukrainian playwright to the fact most Canadians can’t name a Canadian one – and decries how Chekhov and Shakespeare, boosted by Russian and British empires, are still rammed down their throats.

Masha, however, isn’t having any of this. She loves Chekhov, poetry and her country, and calls Matt an “anti-classicist.” At which point, you know, they’re just destined to fall in love.

After that, the tensions between Ukraine and Russia disappear from the play for a while as life happens and a new family is formed in Canada. But then, in the section that is entirely new to the stage show, war erupts.

Matt, a still somewhat financially unstable father of an instant family, finds himself even more over his head with responsibilities. He jokes that he and Masha should divorce and she should apply for refugee status in Canada, as it would help them for tax purposes.

Masha, for her part, was already feeling disconnected from her life and career as a new mom in Canada. Now, she starts to feel guilty about her personal safety as friends and family back home are under attack, fleeing and killed.

The actor even starts to wonder how much her playwright husband has been seeing their whirlwind romance, and now the war, as an adventure – or, worse, dramatic material.

First Métis Man of Odesa has a natural Into the Woods structure as a fairy tale that suddenly runs smack into reality. Daniela Masellis’s set suggests that shift by deconstructing itself mid-play – but the writing could use more structuring to that effect. An intermission would help, as the show currently feels like one play tacked on to another.

As for the people-playing-themselves aesthetic, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks as it means Matt and Masha’s story is updated, in a way, every time they act it.

MacKenzie lowers expectations for his performance by declaring, right off the top of the show, that he is not an actor – and then just exceeds them. Khomutova, meanwhile, masterfully moves from the play’s lighter moments to its more distressing one.

First Métis Man of Odesa should continue to grow and evolve as an up-to-the second timely piece of theatre as it tours to Edmonton, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Winnipeg into next fall. I wish for both MacKenzie and Khomutova’s sake, and for all our sakes, that Matt and Masha find a happier ending by then.

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