By James Karas
Wormwood is a new play by Andrew Kushnir that is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre. The playwright is a Canadian of Ukrainian descent and he wants to comment on the sorry state of Ukraine and then some. It is a noble attempt but the result is a not always focused and as such success is limited.
When the lights go on Scott Wentworth wearing sunglasses is led on the stage by a young man dressed in a traditional East European costume. Wentworth is supposed to be a kobzar, a traditional blind bard who sings epic songs. Wentworth tries to tell some banal jokes and he looks straight at the audience. This is simple carelessness but Kushnir’s intention is to bring a deeply rooted Ukrainian tradition that seems akin to the Homeric bards.
Nancy Palk, Amy Keating, Luke Humphrey and Ben Campbell. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The kobzar, the bandurist (Victor Mishalow) who plays a traditional stringed instrument and a Cossack (Ken James Stewart) do very little for the play aside from adding a bit of colour and perhaps pointing to the rich cultural past of Ukraine. We need more.
The main story centers on Ivan (Luke Humphrey), a young Ukrainian-Canadian TV salesman who has gone to the land of his fathers to monitor the presidential elections. Naïve is the politest word one can use for Ivan. We never learn who sent him or how he is supposed to monitor the elections. He never does, in any event. He ends up in a house instead of a hotel, his passport is stolen and he is unable to communicate with most people because they speak Russian and he speaks Ukrainian. Humphrey is a highly energetic performer and he can be very amusing but he needs a different role.
There is a great deal of dialogue in Russian or Ukrainian which may be unimportant because we do not understand what they are saying or we are to get the gist of it from the context which is even worse. Let’s just say that lengthy stretches of dialogue in a language that most of the audience does not understand is, to put it politely, annoying.
Luke Humphrey, Chala Hunter. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Ivan ends up in the house of The Professor (a very loud Ben Campbell) who has an even louder Housekeeper (Nancy Palk) and a Daughter (Amy Keating.) The Housekeeper does not speak English during the first half but she becomes very fluent after the intermission.
The play moves into surreal territory when Ivan enters a garden adjoining the house of The Professor. He meets the beautiful Artemisia (Chala Hunter), the daughter of the Doctor (Scott Wentworth). She does not speak but Ivan and she eventually establish rapport and fall in love. She finds her tongue in the second act.
The play does have a climactic scene which is indeed dramatic provided your attention has not wandered off by then. The mysterious garden and the isolation of Artemisia are explained by the radioactive poisoning caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. The window adjoining the Professor’s house to the garden is locked because the garden is contaminated. The Doctor’s wife was near Chernobyl when the accident happened and she died a horrible death as a result of radioactive poisoning.
The foolish young Canadian who is to monitor elections that he knows nothing about; the Professor’s dysfunctional and ludicrous family and the overprotective doctor and his outlandish daughter are neither representative of a country in crisis nor even an intelligent comment on it.
Most of them attempt Russian or Ukrainian accents with varying success. The play, however hard director Richard Rose, tried to make it entertaining, lacks focus. Kushnir tries to cover too much ground. Bring in the dramaturge.
Wormwood by Andrew Kushnir opened on November 18 and continues until December 20, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave.