A good story, despite bumps in the telling

Benedict Campbell, Nancy Palk, Amy Keating (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
DRAMATIC TALE: Wormwood at the Tarragon avoids lecturing its audience on Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, by casting events as a love story. Featured here are, from left, Benedict Campbell, Nancy Palk and Amy Keating.

Wormwood, by Andrew Kushnir, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, running to Dec. 20.

Canadian playwrights have a tendency to become so consumed by the Big Ideas and Important Issues they want to share with an audience that they forget to tell a story.

Wormwood, the new Tarragon Mainspace production set against the tumultuous backdrop of Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, largely avoids this trap by presenting itself as a modern folktale, focusing on a sweet love story and keeping its message mainly in the background until the last 15 minutes, when it packs, if not quite an emotional wallop, then definitely a punch.

The protagonist in Ukranian-Canadian playwright Andrew Kushnir’s tale is Ivan (played by Luke Humphrey), a wide-eyed Canadian who initially treats a winter visit to his family’s homeland as an adventure offering the rare chance to be a first-hand witness to history.

That history is Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” when the 2004 victory of Russian-supported presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych was challenged by his rival, USA and European Union-supported Viktor Yushchenko, whose party colour was orange, leading to nationwide protests and ultimately a new election that was won by Yushchenko.

At this point I must assume that Wormwood director (and Tarragon’s artistic director) Richard Rose enjoys story theatre, because this is the fifth production I’ve seen under his watch that features a narrator. This narrator (Scott Wentworth) begins the play by forgetting a joke, then telling a folktale about a king who visits a village and winds up getting more than he bargained for.

Of course Ivan and his brother Markiyan (Ken James Stewart) don’t know what’s in store for them when they arrive at the home of their host, the alcoholic professor (Ben Campbell) and his excitable housekeeper (Nancy Palk) and her daughter (Amy Keating). And of course when Ivan discovers the beautiful Artemisia (Chala Hunter) lives next door he falls instantly in love with her. Fortunately their courtship is engaging and occupies a sizable portion of the play.

But from the start to around 15 minutes before the finish, Kushnir’s Big Ideas frequently threaten to overwhelm his script. While the love story is clear, the election’s impact on his characters is not. motivations frequently shift without warning, Markiyan disappears for reasons never explained, and there’s a lot of passionate yelling that doesn’t actually seem to be caused by anything. Wormwood runs for a butt-numbing two hours and 30 minutes, intermission included, and I’ll wager at least 30 of those minutes could have been cut.

Yet Ivan and Artemisia’s relationship remains moving, Stratford veteran Wentworth, who doubles as Artemisia’s loving but combative father, is a terrific storyteller, and when Kushnir’s ending arrives his Important Issue snaps into focus with startling clarity:

How naïve is the western world to jump into conflicts it doesn’t know the first thing about, and support a cause simply because someone connected to it said something that vaguely sounded like it would support their interests? How stupid, to send its best and brightest to engage in those conflicts without explaining what’s at stake and why? And how condescending, and cruel, to then abandon those fights at the moment of victory, as if the West were a superhero constantly saving grateful citizens who can immediately get on with their lives?

The program helpfully lays everything out, and it’s no accident that the chaos Ukraine experienced 10 years later hangs over the play — or that its title is the English word for “Chernobyl.”

On the evening I attended, Wormwood did not receive a standing ovation or whistles, and I counted only one hoot, but the audience’s applause was long and loud, as if Kushnir had just finished telling his story, and everyone, including my friend and me, agreed it was a good one.