“In the end all we have is hope.”
This is just one of the messages from Ukrainian-Canadian Andrew Kushnir’s Wormwood, a complex story of history, nationalism, sorrow and courage of a nation divided and torn time and time again.
Ivan, played by Luke Humphrey is a young Ukrainian-Canadian who travels to his homeland to observe the 2004 elections -- the event that prompted the Orange Revolution. As Ivan is constantly challenged because of his heritage and language, his political obligations fade into a search for identity.
The play opens up in utter chaos as Ivan has just been robbed. What Ivan doesn’t know is that the mugging has been secretly coordinated by his hosts.
Ben Campbell gives a superb performance as the crazed professor and host to Ivan. Campbell captures the crooked used car salesman-esque charm with witty one-liners.
The professor forbids Ivan to open a window that overlooks the neighbour’s garden. Of course Ivan opens the window and meets the neighbour’s daughter, postponing election plotline to showcase a romantic subplot.
The audience is introduced to Artemisia, played by Chala Hunter, a beautiful and mysterious woman who listens to Back Door Man by the Doors on vinyl, a clever touch in song selection might I add. This introductory scene provides much needed buoyancy at this point in the play. The cat and mouse routine proceeds as Artemisia remains silent. The audience enters the intermission thinking that the play will be a somewhat straightforward romance.
The second act unfolds with deep-seated seriousness and complexity as secrets from the first act are revealed.
Much of the play’s greatness comes from the roles of Scott Wentworth. He starts as a blind Kobzar (a Ukrainian bard), narrating with ease. Wentworth has the charm of an Eastern European grandparent, but leaves the audience with a little uncertainty as a walking tour guide who suddenly charges you out the wazoo even though his sign says “donations accepted.”
Wentworth puts Ukrainian struggles in context as he alternates between playing Artemisia’s father and the Kobzar. During the second act Wentworth’s jokes darken. Comments like “Ukraine never misses a chance to miss a chance,” are peppered within monologues about sorrow for the countries of Russian dependence. His somber monologue about losing his wife to radiation from chernobyl will startle you. Kushnir challenges his audience to consider how often first generation Canadians claim their elders' history as their own, from the safety of their first world luxuries.
An honourable mention is needed for Victor Mishalow who plays the bandura, a traditional Ukrainian multi-stringed instrument. This beautiful addition elevates the performance and provides the perfect musical transition between scenes. Another honourable mention is needed for Graeme Thomson who creates a gorgeous lighted tree for the garden. The simplicity of the garden is truly profound.
In two-and-a-half hours you will learn a lot about Ukrainian diaspora without any language barriers. The production’s program is chock-full of insightful background information on Ukraine’s social history and the Orange Revolution.
The World Premiere of Wormwood runs until Dec. 20 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. For more information visit http://tarragontheatre.com/.