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First Métis Man of Odesa Is Not Your Average Love Story

Small details go a long way in this production about love and life during wartime.

by Kayla MacInnis

Photo by Alexis McKeown

From the beaches of the Black Sea to the frozen riverbanks of the North Saskatchewan River to The Cultch’s Historic Theatre in East Vancouver comes First Métis Man of Odesa. Written and performed by Canadian Métis playwright Matthew MacKenzie and Ukrainian actor Mariya (Masha) Khomutova, this is a story almost as old as our country itself. 

Canada is home to 1.4 million people of Ukrainian descent, the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora after Russia, with the first wave of Ukrainian migrations to the rural landscapes of Canada arriving in 1891. Most Ukrainians settled in the prairies and built relationships with local Indigenous communities. The Ukrainians and Red River Métis have had these longstanding relationships for over a hundred years, with many intermarrying. 

Matt and Masha met in Ukraine at an actors workshop in Kyiv back in 2018 when a romance sparked up that took them back and forth between Odesa and Toronto through their marriage, pregnancy, a global pandemic, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Their play explores this journey, laden with honesty, charm, and uncertainty. 

Matthew begins with a land acknowledgement while tying in Vancouver’s relationship with Odessa as a sister city (Odesa being the Ukrainian spelling, while Odessa is the Russian spelling). 

The pair yell, “Slava Ukraini!” The audience echoes back. Then all goes quiet. 

Matthew starts the play by declaring, “I am not an actor,” despite his stiff and awkward disposition, he is charismatic, funny, and very likable. 

Masha walks into the room, stating, “I don’t want your donations,” with a firm disposition. One can sense that she is strong and assured, and a look in her eye affirms this. 

She doesn’t want your donations. She wants a home. She wants safety. She wants ‘before.’

And ‘before’ is something they explore throughout the play, often returning to and lingering on the word. This is perhaps something we have all grappled with. Their love story-turned-play is a witty, charming, and honest account of those who lived it. The pace feels reminiscent of Waiting for Godot and, at times, is almost as silly and redundant while balancing the thin line between tragedy and comedy.

When grief and uncertainty live alongside humour, we bear witness to the complexities of life. Their personal struggles and cultural differences throughout the play—which had the theatre erupt in laughter on numerous occasions—convey truths in vulnerable monologues about the hard edges and wonder of human existence. A poem about their migration journey, using stichomythia, a technique in which characters alternate lines, leaves the visual imagery of their travels lingering days later. 

The set, designed by Daniela Masellis, is simple, with two chairs, red pelmets, and a translucent curtain that worked to create a symbolic sense of separation between the two characters. Projection designer Amelia Scott creates a world that envelopes the entire set with images of the cities travelled and sometimes stars blanketing the entire theatre, the audience included. 

The music ranges from Ukrainian folk to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” During the wedding scene, Masha dons a Ukrainian flower crown, while Matthew wears a traditional beaded Métis flower brooch. Small details go a long way in this production. 

As the war broke out, the set begins to deteriorate. Smoke clouds cover the stage, and the alarming sound of bombs and distortion fill the room.

The play ends by making sweeping statements about hope. This may tread on cliche, but we need hope (and art) in these moments. Like Vedran Smailović, the Cellist of Sarajevo, who played the cello in a decimated building while bombs went off around him, art reminds us of our humanity and connects us to our emotions. 

First Métis Man of Odesa runs until June 4 at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables) | TICKETS