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Theatre Reviews Wormwood: Metaphors abound in tale of the Orange Revolution

Luke Humphrey, Ken James Stewart and Chala Hunter perform in Wormwood, at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto until Dec. 20.

Cyllla von Tiedemann

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Wormwood
Written by
Andrew Kushnir
Directed by
Richard Rose
Actors
Luke Humphrey, Scott Wentworth
Venue
Tarragon Theatre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, December 20, 2015

Remember the Orange Revolution of 2004?

One hundred thousand Ukrainians peacefully protested election fraud in Kiev's Independence Square until a new vote was called. By the end, a pro-Russian politician was prevented from taking office, a pro-Western one was officially sworn in as president – and not a single window was broken in the process.

A decade on, as the ongoing crisis unfolds in Ukraine, it's hard to look back on the Orange Revolution through rose-coloured glasses any more. It left the country still divided, torn between two powers, half orange, half blue – and Independence Square would eventually run red when the revolution's sequel arrived.

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In his new play, Wormwood, Andrew Kushnir, the Ukrainian-Canadian playwright, looks back at the heady days when so many in the diaspora went back to the motherland to act as election observers – and found a country perhaps more complicated and confusing than the one they had heard about in Ukrainian Scouts.

Winston Churchill once described Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." In Wormwood, Ukraine appears as a metaphor wrapped in an allegory inside a parable.

"Sometimes it is not worth to keep together what wants to split apart," says a mysterious blind bard called the Kobzar, the narrator of Wormwood – played by Stratford Festival's Scott Wentworth (who at times seems to be reprising his Teyve from Fiddler on the Roof).

After the Kobzar elliptically sets the scene, we meet Ivan (Luke Humphrey) – a fresh-faced young Canadian who has taken time off from his work at a television store to be a part of history as an election observer in December, 2004. He's obviously here because he's been inspired by the Orange Revolution – but he has to maintain the appearance of neutrality.

Posted to a small town outside of Kiev, however, Ivan quickly finds himself separated from his brother Markiyan (Ken James Stewart), plied with shots of vodka – and soon enough has been parted from his coat and his Canadian passport by Russian-speaking ruffians while walking in the middle of a cold, winter's night.

A garrulous professor (Ben Campbell) sets Ivan up in a bed at his home, where he is cared for by a sweet young woman (Amy Keating) and her one-eyed mother (Nancy Palk).

Above Ivan's bed is a locked window – and once the Canadian obtains the key to it, he finds it leads to a courtyard where it is spring and a beautiful young woman named Artemisia (Chala Hunter) tends to her garden. She is being kept there, as in a fable, by a controlling father who has commanded her to speak to no one.

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The entirety of Wormwood takes place in Ivan's room and the courtyard – and Camellia Koo's set is a delightful optical illusion – both places at once under Richard Rose's clever direction. Are the scenes in Artemisia's courtyard one big fever dream? Was the Orange Revolution – and dreams of a Western-style democracy in Ukraine – one?

Kushnir, a multitalented theatre artist, has touched on his disillusionment as a Ukrainian-Canadian before in documentary plays he has written or co-created, such as The Gay Heritage Project and Small Axe.

Here, in his first major drama, it is the central subject. Indeed, Wormwood is, perhaps, a little too disillusioned.

Artemesia's father (also played by Wentworth) gets the chance to explain at length why he has voted "blue" rather than "orange" in the election, and is quite sympathetic. Russia will always care more about Ukraine than Europe, he argues – and he'd rather see the forces controlling his country out in the open than have them hiding in shadows.

Ivan, on the other hand, is no hero, but an ugly Canadian. He thinks he knows what Ukraine needs, and what Artemesia needs, and isn't really prepared to listen, only speak.

Indeed, Ivan can't listen to half of what's going on – he speaks only Ukrainian, not Russian, and so much of what the characters are saying goes over his head. (Even more will go over the head of an audience member who speaks neither.) The Ukrainian he speaks is outdated, too – he says "barabolia" for a certain starchy tuber, while Artemisia says "kartoplia." Po-tay-to, po-tat-o, should they call the whole thing off?

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Kushnir's play would be stronger if every character were as complex as Campbell's funny, furtive professor and Wentworth's soulful Kobzar. Instead, the romance at the centre is too allegorical to really get invested in – certainly for 2 1/2 hours.

Artemesia is an example of the overloaded metaphors – her name conjures both a Greek goddess, and the genus of plants to which wormwood belongs, and she is also a symbol for Ukraine – torn between her Russian-speaking father and a less-than-committed Canadian. Still, better to have a play be too full of ideas than empty of them.

Wormwood continues to Dec. 20 (tarragontheatre.com).

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