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First Métis Man of Odesa: Fall in love with it

by | May 26, 2023 | Review | 1 comment

publicity photo for First Métis Man of Odesa

Yeah, they’re pretty cute. (Photo of Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova by Nastya Gooz)

First Métis Man of Odesa is such compelling — and funny — storytelling. It’s charmingly performed, and exquisitely directed and produced. I hope The Cultch and Punctuate! Theatre can find pull quotes in those two sentences to use in their advertising because I want to help as many people as possible to see this show.

Written and performed by Métis playwright Matthew MacKenzie and Ukrainian actor Mariya Khomutova, First Métis Man of Odesa is, very importantly, their story. It matters a lot that they’re playing themselves, that we’re witnessing concrete, physical testimony.

Matt and Masha (Mariya) met when Matt was in Ukraine in 2018, “near the frontline between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists, conducting interviews for a play with people caught up in a conflict much of the world has forgotten about.” (Those interview subjects kept telling him that Russia wasn’t finished with Ukraine.) In Kyiv, at a workshop for the play that Matt and his colleagues were writing, Matt met Masha, who was originally from Odesa, and the two sparked romantically. When Matt went back home to Canada, they corresponded. She visited our country. They met one another’s folks. Then, as the stakes in their relationship were ramping up, Covid hit. They negotiated that — with daring. Just after they had landed on their feet, ensconced as a married couple in Edmonton, Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

First Métis Man effectively evokes Masha’s despair, the helplessness of knowing that, while she was safe in Canada, back in Ukraine the lives of her friends and family were being torn apart. We’ve been introduced to her bridesmaids so, when one of them heads to Mariupol to find her mom, we feel the dread.

But First Métis Man wears two masks: comedy as well as tragedy — embodied, more or less, by Matt and Masha respectively. Matt’s humour adds resilience and gives the narrative of the brutal invasion room to breathe.

This juxtaposition of the characters’ sensibilities is threaded through the script. “Toronto is amazing!” Masha exclaims on her first visit to Canada. “I can’t believe she thinks Toronto is amazing,” Matt deadpans.

This dialectic plays out on another level, too. Right off the top, when Matt is introducing the performance, he says, “I’m a playwright not an actor” and, as I watched him in the first couple of scenes with his skilled wife, I thought, “You got that right, buddy.” His delivery is loud and declamatory — but he completely won me over. It quickly became apparent that, within his style, which seems stilted at first, Matt has terrific comic timing — and he conveys a lot of emotional information. It wasn’t long before I was smitten with both of them.

Capitalizing on the script’s emphasis on concrete experience, director Lianna Makuch delivers physicalized staging. When the invasion comes, Masha rips the ruby-red curtains from the set’s small proscenium and wraps herself in them in what could be a search for solace. (Daniella Masellis’s lovely set — it looks like a paper pop-up theatre — fits into The Cultch’s main space as if it was built for it.)

Amelia Scott’s projection design is gorgeous. Early on, when Matt brings a bottle of champagne to the opening of a show Masha’s in, the set is suddenly spangled with shimmering gold circles. These effects keep coming.

Aaron Macri’s sound design is also a dream. Its percussion helps to make Matt’s series of high-stakes airplane flights into the unknown terrain of early-Covid travel as suspenseful as a car chase.

In this tight, tight script — Matt McGeachy acted as dramaturg — there’s also satisfying metatheatricality. When they first meet, Masha disdains Matt’s faith in reality-based theatre. She regards herself as a classicist. But, as we witness, Matt’s approach is the very thing that helps to keep her from losing her mind.

And, like all the best theatre, First Métis Man of Odesa is rich in details: hearing Masha lovingly pronounce Métis place names, the unabashed eccentricity of the plot point in which Masha’s father Eugene sends Matt a tape of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” — and it spurs Matt into action.

Go see this show.

Dance me to the end of love.

FIRST MÉTIS MAN OF ODESA Written and performed by Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova. Directed by Liana Makuch. A Punctuate! Theatre production presented by The Cultch in association with rEvolver Festival. On Thursday, May 25. Running in The Cultch’s Historic Theatre until June 4.  Info and tickets

+++ In Toronto, First Métis Man of Odesa has been nominated for five Dora Awards in the Independent Theatre Division: outstanding production (Puntuate! Theatre in association with the Theatre Centre), new play (Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova), direction (Lianna Makuch), performance (Mariya Khomutova), and sound design/composition (Daraba and Aaron Macri).

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1 Comment

  1. Owen

    FMMOO just got nominated for multiple Dora Awards this morning (May 29th) in Toronto! I, too, loved this play. Riveting and moving on so many levels.


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