Ukraine’s past and present are explored in Lianna Makuch’s play now onstage in Toronto
Blood of Our Soil, by Edmonton’s Lianna Makuch and presented by Pyretic Productions in association with Punctuate! Theatre at the Tarragon Extraspace, is based on her grandmother’s journal accounts of fleeing Ukraine during the Second World War. Like a carefully-preserved box of mementos, the play feels like a discovery of buried treasure. It has been in development for years, and the writing and production have been meticulously, finely honed in that time by the playwright/director Patrick Lundeen, and dramaturg Matthew Mackenzie (writer of the Dora-winning Bears, currently at Factory).
Hania (Makuch) has recently placed her Baba (grandmother) Kateryna in an assisted-living facility. A woman whose past contains severe trauma, Baba says it is easier to forget, but has never forgotten. One of her secrets, concerning her flight to Canada decades ago, is killing her. Horrified by news reports of the Russian incursion into Ukraine that coincide with the cessation of letters from a relative she had to leave behind, Baba causes mayhem in the nursing home, inspiring her granddaughter to go in search of her past.
The audience enters to a beautiful set design (Stephanie Bahniuk) of a house made of loosely-connected, vertical wooden slats, simultaneously finished and unfinished. Ghostly projections (Nicholas Mayne) of interiors and characters gazing out at the audience, sometimes accusingly, sometimes amused, set the show’s tone, while an eerie soundscape (also Mayne) plays overhead. More projections are extremely useful in differentiating spaces. The inventive set comes apart and rotates, taking on multiple roles in portraying places of refuge.
Like a journal entry, the first act is essentially a one woman show with chorus, narrated by Makuch while the other five cast members act as memory objects and people from the past and present. They move seamlessly, singing in gloriously tight a cappella harmonies, and occasionally accompanied with aplomb by music director Larissa Pohoreski on a range of culturally-appropriate instruments (violin, accordion, and what looks like a tsymbaly, the Ukrainian hammer dulcimer).
Makuch plays both granddaughter and her grandmother during flashbacks to her youth, with the addition of a headscarf and accent delineating the latter. The accent, while perhaps necessary, feels odd; the implication is that the stories come from journals written in Ukrainian, rather than told in accented English. The focus is strictly on Makuch, which she returns with laser-like intensity. The monologue is detailed, captivating and almost nonstop; songs are welcome pauses in a barrage of lyrically-written content. The interweaving of Baba’s past and Hania’s present provides a welcome rhythm. Oddly, the moments between grandmother and granddaughter, which effectively speak to themes of transgenerational trauma and the cyclical nature of history, seem more vital than Baba’s dramatic war journey.
Things both slow down and pick up in the second half, when Hania travels to her Baba’s again war-torn homeland. The chorus, freed from the past, are now able to fully embody characters with dialogue, including the Ukrainian soldiers who accompany her on her quest, and the ordinary citizens she meets. Their stories will forever impress on her the power and necessity of remembrance.
The second half of the play seeks to present a nuanced version of a horrifying conflict not often on North American minds, reinforcing that those caught in terrifyingly “interesting” times are merely human beings, just like those who watch their stories. Tragedy does not naturally make anyone a better or braver person; this is just one of many reactions to trauma.
Given voice, the characters are vibrant. The soldiers, one seemingly happy-go-lucky (Maxwell Theodore LeBeuf) and the other more brooding (Oscar Derkx), present shifting faces of patriotic duty and despairing burnout. “We don’t want your donations,” a mother of a young girl (Lisa Norton) yells at Hania, briefly losing her composure – what they want is normalcy and stability from a world unwilling to listen. “Fake news” and the damaging effects of disinformation and propaganda as a corollary of war are also discussed, as the characters reveal their own biases.
The play’s extended moments of Ukrainian dialogue are Ukrainian Easter eggs for the audience: an extra treat for those who understand (I am not one of them), but anyone can still follow the gist due to well-established context and basic translation.
Though it hasn’t been given a splashy welcome to Toronto, Blood of Our Soil is a quietly remarkable theatrical event. While at times it feels like two detached parts, it creates an impressive whole in the heart: tightly written, beautifully designed and skillfully performed. It’s well worth your time to pick up the pieces.
- Blood of Our Soil plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Ave.) until March 16, 2019.
- Shows run at 8:00PM Thursday-Saturday, with a 2:30PM Saturday matinee.
- Tickets are $20-30 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-531-1827 or in person at the Tarragon Box Office.
Photo of the company by Dahlia Katz