Real-life, world-spanning love story at heart of next Persephone show

Matthew MacKenzie (left) and Mariya Khomutova (right) wrote and perform in "First Metis Man of Odesa," a play based on their own life stories. (Supplied / Photo by Olivia Swerhone-Wick, Persephone Theatre)

Sometimes, the real story is plenty compelling without embellishment.

That’s the case for the real-life romance of Ukrainian theatre artist Mariya Khomutova and Métis playwright Matthew MacKenzie.

“We just based it on the amazing story of our meeting and our love and our romance, and troubles we had later,” Khomutova said. “We didn’t have to invent anything. We just sort of wrote the facts, and it was already a play. The play was there.”

The whirlwind life experiences of Khomutova and MacKenzie are the basis for First Métis Man of Odesa, the new Canadian play and the next show to grace the stage at Persephone Theatre.

The play follows the story of Matt, a well-traveled playwright who makes his way to Ukraine while working on a new theatre project. He meets Ukrainian performer Masha, and the budding romance and burgeoning family between the two spans both countries and worldwide crises including the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

If the character names sound similar to those of the artists, that’s by design — the now-married pair of Khomutova and MacKenzie co-wrote this show from their own life stories, and play the fictionalized versions of themselves in the two-person play.

Khomutova said the show originally began as a project by MacKenzie exploring their unique experience, and eventually became the joint theatre project making its way to the stage in Saskatoon.

She said working with her partner on the project was an experience that allowed both of them the opportunity to reflect and also gain insights into how the other experienced their romantic journey.

“Looking back on those years, it was astonishing — and it was very therapeutic as well,” Khomutova said. “I didn’t expect that writing the play would help me, and I think it helped Matt, just to understand ourselves better, and our thoughts and feelings we had during those years.”

The main challenge of playing a dramatic version of themselves on stage, per Khomutova, was to not be “too realistic.” She said one of the themes of the show is the idea of where reality ends and life begins — and because of how close to home the content of the story hits for both performers, they wanted to make sure the show remained an artistic production and not a “documentary” of their lives.

“It’s not a BBC TV show, it’s theatre,” Khomutova said. “We had to find the language to talk about war in a theatre, and talk about having a baby in a theatre. That was a challenge, how to make reality a piece of art.”

The show spans major global events as the characters work to build a life and a family together — specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine.

Khomutova said the feedback they’ve received on the show, from Ukrainians living in Canada and audience members still dealing with all the effects of the lingering pandemic, has been heartening.

The goal of this show is to share something beautiful in difficult times. Khomutova said she hopes First Métis Man of Odesa can be a relatable and meaningful experience for the audience.

“It’s a personal story, with a simple family with a kid, who had to go through huge challenges in their life … I think people can relate to that,” she said. “We didn’t want to make it a dark story. These alarming times, they need love stories with a light of hope at the end. That’s what I think we delivered, in the end.”

First Métis Man of Odesa, a Punctuate! Theatre production, runs at Persephone Theatre until Oct. 29.

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