Review: Wormwood (Tarragon Theatre)

Ken James Stewart, Luke Humphrey in Wormwood (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Wormwood, on stage in Toronto, is a story both “magnificent” and “heartbreaking”

Wormwood, playing at the Tarragon Theatre, is a carefully constructed story that interweaves aspects of nationalistic pride, folklore, love story, history, and Ukrainian diaspora, the result of which is a wonderful and delicate piece of crafted theatre that is provoking and powerful — one you won’t want to miss.

Built against the backdrop of the Orange Revolution — a time of mass political upheaval in Ukraine — this story takes a closer look at a nation divided and the misplaced intentions of North American ideals.

I’m not Ukrainian or Russian, I don’t speak or understand the language and my heritage is nowhere near the region. I have friends who are Ukrainian and through them I had a mild understanding of the nation’s political environment but never a solid understanding. Going into Wormwood, I didn’t know much about the Orange Revolution or the elections in 2004. The production’s program is packed full of all the information you’ll need in a handy guide. Thing is, you don’t need to be that entirely well versed in Ukraininan politics to get feel the full effects of Wormwood; you don’t even need to speak Ukrainian or Russian.

In Wormwood, Luke Humphrey plays Ivan, a young Ukrainian-Canadian who’s ventured back to his homeland to report on the ongoing elections. During his unexpected stay with a local housekeeper (Nancy Palk) and her daughter (Amy Keating), Ivan runs into the mysterious and rather silent Artemisia (Chala Hunter) and her demanding and protective father (Scott Wentworth, who also serves as the story’s narrator). It doesn’t take long before Ivan is wrapped up in the political upheaval of the nation, the life of Artemisia, and his own sense of national pride.

The performance is two and a half hours with one intermission. There are times in the first act as the characters, back story, and political climate are being established that bordered slightly on tedium. The things that did capture my attention: Wentworth speaking as the elderly and blind Kobzar (a Ukrainian bard) who begins this tale. What becomes perfectly clear from the moment Wentworth takes the stage is that the script here is razor sharp, and much of it is fueled with the smack-you-upside-the-head bluntness and humor you can expect from an Eastern European grandparent. Another would be Victor Mishalow as the bandurist (he also served as the production’s language coach) who played the bandura (a traditional Ukrainian multi-stringed instrument) hauntingly and beautifully, delivering the perfect musical accompaniment to the production.

Needless to say, the story springs to life in the second act and all the seeds sown throughout the first act come to bloom (like why her father takes Artemisia’s temperature daily and why Ivan is consistently sick). In that second act, you can’t help but fall in love with this production as everything falls into place so impeccably.

There are so many facets to Wormwood that I find magnificent that it’s hard to not turn this whole review into one big moment of gush. The cast performs beautifully from Humphrey’s stubbornness as the Ukrainian-Canadian proud of his home country but rooted firmly in Canadian ideals and the wondrous things that living in a first world nation can afford, to Hunter’s delicateness and humility as Artemisia. Ben Campbell as the Professor is delightfully outward and boisterous while Wentworth’s pain and revelation is heartbreaking.

I’m also in love with the simple set where minimalistic lighting changes turn the set from Luke’s bedroom to the garden outside his window, the small bit of paradise where he finds Artemisia. Camellia Koo, who serves as set and costume designer, has outdone herself here along with sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne and lighting by Graeme S. Thomson.

The English script is thoroughly peppered with Ukrainian and Russian throughout and as I mentioned, understanding these languages is not necessary. Of course, if you do it will certainly add to your appreciation of the story, but the emotions that fuel the speech are crystal clear — it’s not hard to understand “please don’t hurt me!” in any language.

Wormwood is playing at the Tarragon Theatre until December 20 and I wish the cast and crew great success with their run. Though I may not be Ukrainian, I am Chinese-Canadian and the diaspora that playwright Andrew Kushnir is writing from is something I greatly relate to when I consider the land and political nature of China. If I can urge you to do anything, dear reader, it is to go and see this play.


  • Wormwood is playing at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave) until December 20, 2015.
  • Performances run Tuesday to Sunday at 8 pm with Wednesday and weekend matinees at 1:30 and 2:30 pm. See website for details.
  • Tickets are $60 for adults, $49 for seniors 65+, and $29 for students and can be purchased online.

Photo of Ken James Stewart and Luke Humphrey by Cylla Von Tiedemann