Review: Cultures, love and humour collide in ‘First Metis Man of Odesa’

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova 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)

It’s a real-life love story that’s almost too remarkable to believe.

Persephone Main Stage is playing host to the Punctuate! Theatre production First Métis Man of Odesa, a biographical account of the love story between Matthew MacKenzie, a Métis writer from Edmonton, and Mariya Khomutova, an award-winning actor from Odesa, Ukraine. This unbelievable (yet true) story features MacKenzie and Khomutova playing fictionalized versions of themselves as they take the audience through the events of their lives — from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the baby that lands in between. 

A love story is always fascinating to watch, but a true love story that lands in the middle of a pandemic and a war seems wild to consider. MacKenzie and Khomutova capture the playfulness of new love and infuse humour into tragic events on Thursday night, making this story easier to absorb. While there are difficult moments and serious topics, it never delves into the full depths of depression and it manages to keep things moving along.

While imperfect and slow-starting, the play contains powerful commentary on global events. Khomutova reminds viewers that the lives of all Ukrainians are now split between before and after the Russian invasion. The display of genuine emotion and passion in Khomutova’s performance makes the conflict real for those in the audience who have the option of ignoring it. Even though she is performing in a play, this is her world and she invites the audience to join her, which is a harrowing feat. 

The creative lighting and set designs are interesting and on the verge of inspiring. It creates new spaces and places within a single set, and the moments with the stars and champagne are particularly lovely. Even so, some transitions feel slightly choppy, as if the play stumbles along at times. This is not unlike the realities of the world where life will often knock you around, but the flow of the play varies throughout; some of it is smooth and some of it is jarring. 

MacKenzie, by his own admission before the play, is not an actor. His performance is clearly outdone by Khomutova, who is magnificent in every scene. Even though he plays himself, MacKenzie has moments of seeming a little wooden. That being said, he also has several hilarious and dry deliveries that make the audience roar. His humour, which is clearly a large part of his personality, makes the show easy to watch despite the sometimes-difficult content. His inclusion of the chicken dance was particularly noteworthy, along with his musing on the naming of Boston Pizza — a chain which originated in Edmonton. 

This is a show where art imitates life, but it ends with the hope that art will inspire action. There’s a meta portion of the play that features the two lovers discussing the potential of turning their story into theatre. Khomutova was originally against it, but agreed in order to do something for Ukrainians. Her agreement to write this story seemed based on the hope that people might do something to bring change in the world.

Despite the bumpy moments, this is a beautiful story of love and the fusing of Canadian and Ukrainian cultures. First Métis Man of Odesa ends with hope for a future of returning to Ukraine and building peace in the world.

First Métis Man of Odesa runs from October 11 – 29, 2023 at Persephone Theatre. Tickets are available persephonetheatre.org.

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