Review: Soulpepper’s ‘The First Métis Man of Odessa’ is a heartfelt true story

Beautiful movement powers timely tale

What: The First Métis Man of Odessa
Where: Soulpepper Theatre, 50 Tank House Lane
When: Now, until Sun., May. 19
Highlight: This real-life couple, to no surprise, has excellent chemistry.
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Tender and urgent story about love for people and communities during wartime.

“Reality can be art.”

Himself tells Herself this as they debate whether true stories can be engaging theatre. Himself wins this argument as the pair is quite literally reliving this discussion on stage in The First Métis Man of Odessa, back in Toronto after its run at The Theatre Centre last year.

Mariya Khomutova (Herself) and Matthew MacKenzie (Himself) are married and also the creators of this beautiful piece. Two actor playwrights play themselves: a Ukrainian actress “three handshakes away from Stanislavski” and a Métis playwright who hates the classics. A non-actor and a non-playwright by trade creating together. Their chemistry as performers is incredible, moving perfectly in sync. Khomutova has a beautiful command over the stage, and MacKenzie holds his own with this confident performer.

This story starts only six years ago, in 2018, and chronicles the two artists’ love story as they meet in Ukraine while MacKenzie is there on a work trip. He lives in Canada and she lives in Ukraine; they are worlds away, but they begin a correspondence anyway. As the years bear on, the pair face life: a global pandemic keeping them apart, a newborn that won’t sleep and eventually 2022 brings the invasion of Ukraine. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the show’s pacing is steady and effective thanks to its artful director, Lianna Makuch.

On the Soulpepper stage, this two-hander fills the stage with a proscenium arc complete with red velvet curtains, a veil and two chairs. The projection design by Amelia Scott is immersive, showing different parts of their stories like the bustling towns they’re in, an airplane taking off, or even a glass of champagne twinkling with stars. Since the rest of the stage is black, the projections are visible only on the pillars of this arc, creating a distorted effect. As the Ukrainian invasion happens in February 2022, the projections of bomb clouds begin to cover the stage. A static sound fills the room, and the set is deconstructed in front of our very eyes. It cuts right to the soul.

There is a beautiful use of movement in this piece, a moment that stands out to me is when the pair begin to engage in a dance after their first kiss; a moment of love sealed through the unspeakable. The whole aesthetic of this show feels intergalactic, paired with many visuals of stars and light, the discussion of what it means to be a person in the universe. It’s a great fit for a play about people who are worlds away from those they love.

This show is also a celebration of Ukrainian culture, complete with its own Ukrainian wedding. The production is taking full advantage of this and is using this limited run as an opportunity to elevate local Ukrainians through a series of ancillary events including an Odesa Bazaar, Ukrainian Heritage night and more.

I can’t help but wonder what an emotional journey it must be to relive these emotional moments over and over on stage in front of an audience. Khomutova and MacKenzie are doing important work: not only delivering a heartwarming tale of how far love can go but also reminding the audience of how wartime tears into families and communities, even from an ocean away.