One of the powers of live theatre is that it can educate audience members about horrible things that happened or are happening. Sometimes people with privileged and busy lives like mine kind of missed reading about world events or unpleasant parts of history. I’m not sure whether it’s worse nowadays, when first encounters with news might come through the filter of which stories from which sources the people on my Facebook feeds choose to link and when we get to hear about so many awful things happening that it’s easy to be distracted by the next one, or whether it was worse in the past when there was no way around mass media, nobody tweeting from war zones.
Live theatre can also be an effective way of making sense of traumatic stories experienced by parents and grandparents, placing them in context and sharing them with a wider public. In Empire of the Son, which played earlier this year at the Citadel, the performer-creator Tetsuro Shigematsu tells some of his father’s stories, including being a Japanese child during World War II and experiencing fallout from Hiroshima (literal fallout). In Children of God, which previews at the Citadel starting tomorrow, Corey Payette and his creative team will show us some stories of indigenous children in Canadian residential schools, and how the experience affected them and their families later. And in Blood of Our Soil, which opened last night at the Arts Barns Westbury Theatre, playwright and performer Lianna Makuch, director Patrick Lundeen, and the Pyretic Productions team show us some details of the hardships of Ukrainian people over the last 90 years or so, in a format that felt human-scale, touching and inspiring, and also showed me how much I just don’t know about that part of the world.
The Westbury Theatre space was arranged in a way that felt more three-dimensional and alive than I’ve ever seen it. Stephanie Bahniuk’s design had dim dappled lighting full of mist exposing a thrust stage area crisscrossed with laundry lines above, and damaged buildings towards the back, with projections (Nicholas Mayne) showing glimpses of life through the windows. Closer inspection revealed that the buildings all seemed to be constructed of old wooden pallets/skids. It reminded me of the set for Irma Voth, but come to life in three dimensions instead of being flat and behind the action.
The first act follows a fairly conventional solo-narration format, with Makuch switching back and forth between a character like herself and her Baba (grandma), signalling the switch by pulling her kerchief over her hair and sometimes changing her accent. Larissa Pohoreski provides some musical background, and the other performers Oscar Derkx, Julia Guy, Maxwell Lebeuf, and Tanya Pacholok create a chorus of expressive movement, occasional song, and joyful folk-dance.
At the end of the first act, the dying Baba tells her granddaughter to go home for her, go to her home in Ukraine.
The second act is all contemporary. Makuch relates how the narrator travels not only to the village and house of her grandmother’s memories, but to the current war zone of Eastern Ukraine. In this act, the other performers all represent people she gets to know in the areas touched by war, young former soldiers (Derkx and Lebeuf), Russian-speaking sisters whose brother had been killed in Kyiv participating in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (Pohoreski and Pacholok), and a young mother, an internally displaced person living with her small child in a hostel and longing for an apartment and a job and hope (Guy). I found this character particularly compelling, abrupt and mistrustful, with her fierce protectiveness expanding from herself and her daughter to cover the Canadian visitor as well. Makuch is painfully honest in showing the visitor’s naiveté and questioning her motives, which impressed me. Suddenly I remembered the first performance in which I had ever seen her, Greg MacArthur‘s The Missionary Position, which illustrated the harm done by well-meaning misguided Canadian visitors in a place like Haiti. The audience gets to share in the narrator’s astonishment that in an area of recent/ongoing conflict, “veteran” doesn’t fit the connotations we might have here, old men and women in Legion jackets. She gets drunk with the young former fighters, and they tell her stories, not just stories of fighting but of how the fighting affected their relationships with women, some of them very funny.
Blood of Our Soil runs at the Arts Barns until March 9th, with tickets available here.