Q&A: Wormwood

How Andrew Kushnir's Ukrainian heritage inspired a Tarragon Theatre world premiere

Presented by Tarragon Theatre
Written by Andrew Kushnir
Directed by Richard Rose

Andrew Kushnir. Photo by Hamish Birt.

This season, Tarragon Theatre Playwright-in-Residence Andrew Kushnir (Small Axe, The Middle Place, The Gay Heritage Project) presents Wormwood, his first play for Tarragon, in a world premiere directed by the company's artistic director Richard Rose. The piece tells the story of a young Canadian's journey to Ukraine in 2004 to observe the elections following the Orange Revolution, only to become an unexpected player in its fractured politics, tumultuous history and the fate of a beautiful woman.

Featuring a cast of well established Canadian talent, including Benedict Campbell, Luke Humphrey, Chala Hunter, Amy Keating, Nancy Palk, Ken James Stewart, Scott Wentworth and bandura player Victor Mishalow, Wormwood explores identity, mythology and the fight for human dignity.

Here, we chat with Kushir about his vision for the show.

Theatromania: Tell us about Wormwood. What inspired this play?

AK: Set during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, Wormwood has a young Ukrainian-Canadian going to observe elections and experiencing the land of his cultural heritage for the first time. The play looks at what it means to have an inherited mythology about a place or a people (in this case, Ukraine and Ukrainians) only to be confronted by what it’s really like. Romance, patriotism, and politics become intertwined and the play’s hero (Ivan) is called on to become more than a well-intentioned outsider.

My grandfather has always told me “Ukraine is a sleeping giant” – that after centuries of subjugation, Ukraine is poised to wake up and to be formidable. In 2004, I was very moved by the events coming out of Ukraine. A pro-West presidential candidate survived an assassination attempt, an election was rigged in favour of the Russian-backed candidate, and then 500,000 people flooded the Maidan Square in peaceful protest and forced change. For the first time in my adulthood, Ukraine suddenly became a story that the mainstream was interested in and I felt my grandfather’s prophecy was coming true. But in subsequent years, external forces, internal corruption, and a complicated history stymied and ultimately betrayed the ideals of that time. And in 2013/14 we saw the next revolution, the Euromaidan, with just as many people taking to the streets demanding their that dignity be recognized. This time it wasn’t peaceful. I keep getting inspired by the place of my cultural inheritance and I’m compelled by how they keep fighting, they keep surviving, they keep finding their voice.

Theatromania: How would you describe the production in a few sentences?

AK: I think the production is quite sumptuous. Richard Rose and the design team have really created a rich and detailed evocation of that part of the world. You get the flavour of Soviet hangover and then the vivid colours of Chagall as the piece opens up poetically, romantically. The play’s dialogue is trilingual– Ukrainian, Russian and English – which transports the audience’s ear to a foreign land. It’s got a quirky, Slavic sense of humour. Add to this, much of the play is underscored by a bandura player, Victor Mishalow. The bandura is a kind of lute with over 50 strings – I find it to be a magical instrument and it makes for a very cinematic experience at the theatre.

Theatromania: What have you learned from this experience so far?

AK: My personal relationship to Ukraine has deepened through this process – the development of this world premiere has been supported by so many inspiring conversations with people either from or invested in the region. I’ve learned that this story – reconciling one’s cultural inheritance – has a certain universality, or at the very least, it does translate to Canadian audiences. I have a personal attachment to the culture because of my background and upbringing, but as we’ve been in previews, it’s been heartening to see how audience members from all backgrounds are taking something from the piece. I attribute this to the exceptional artists working on this show. They’re not Ukrainian (apart from Victor, the bandurist) and they’ve managed to plunge into this unfamiliar world, its languages, its secret rules, its passions and make it feel so authentic. They’re making an empathetic leap into a culture not their own, and I think this is catching.

Theatromania: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?

AK: I hope that audiences can see that Ukraine and Ukrainians are undeniable – it’s a place and people. A remarkable place and people at that. I’ve often encountered skepticism about whether Ukraine is in fact a nation. I think the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine would suggest that certain powers do think that Ukraine is flimsy and can be defined from the outside. I disagree. I’m interested in Ukrainians themselves, what they want for their lives, their society, their future. I think it’s important to listen to that. And to not assume that we know better from the outside.

Theatromania: What’s next for you?

AK: This coming January, we remount The Gay Heritage Project at Buddies in Bad Times (which I created with Paul Dunn and Damien Atkins). The piece then goes on a Western Canadian tour to the Citadel in Edmonton, The Cultch in Vancouver, and The Belfry in Victoria. I’m very excited to take that queer, celebratory piece into those communities.

Andrew Kushnir's Wormwood is on stage now until December 20, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Visit tarragontheatre.com for more information and to buy tickets.

Show Dates: 
Wed, 2015-11-11 - Sun, 2015-12-20



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.