Wormwood: magic and politics, poetry and a frat boy
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Folk tales and fairy tales are very similar to politics and history. Harsh truths, terrible lies and difficult concepts are rendered palatable by metaphor and symbolism. And as time marches inexorably forward, the stories change, the facts mutate, and magic becomes real.
Wormwood is an incredibly ambitious play, and it should be lauded, and enjoyed, for what it accomplishes despite over-reaching. Playwright Andrew Kushnir (The Gay Heritage Project, Cock) attempts to unravel the troubled political history of the Ukraine by mashing it with several horror and fairy tale tropes. For the history portion, one has to read the extensive program notes beforehand or risk being lost in the multi-languaged dialogue; the tropes are already embedded in our psyches.
While the historical research and apparent verisimilitude grounds Wormwood in a specific world, the magic realism does the opposite, never allowing the play to clearly express the profundities it is struggling so mightily to present. Scott Wentworth, all mellifluous voice and sly charisma, is a Kobzar (a traditional often blind Ukranian bard - a factoid one has to read the program, which includes a glossary, to know) who is part stand-up comedian and the other parts unreliable narrator. He is spellbinding as he sometimes narrates, sometimes storytells.
Wentworth's characters are the crux of what is great and what is problematic with Wormwood. An extraordinary, sumptuous and horrifying, folk tale appears designed to provide an overarching theme. And to tie in to Wentworth's other showy role, the doctor who has a long impassioned speech that contains the revelations that bind the play together. But it all fails to gel. The individual components are gorgeous and meticulously crafted, but the total effect is muted.
There are a lot of ideas, a lot of clever metaphors, woven throughout Wormwood. Perhaps too many, though it would be a shame to lose any of them: it would take a very ruthless and heartless dramaturge to edit Wormwood into clockwork perfection. And it would risk losing the magic and the overarching theme that life - specifically politics, love and power - is an unknowable, chaotic and destructive force. And I suspect that some severe pruning explains the thematic threads that drift into the ether, as well as the sad fate of Victor Mishalow. After a grand entrance, Mishalow, who is a bandurist (a traditional Ukranian stringed instrument, details in the glossary) of some renown, finds his musical contributions reduced to occasional accompaniment and one very funny gag.
Wentworth and a regal/down-and-dirty Nancy Palk (No Great Mischief) handle the exposition and contradictions with aplomb and skill, completely upstaging the love story that is supposedly central. While Chala Hunter makes for a visually ethereal maiden trapped in a mysterious garden, Luke Humphrey is given a character who is too frat-boy odious for even an imprisoned virgin to fall for. Humphrey makes a valiant effort to add charm to lines that only reinforce his stated mastery of the art of television sales, but has to resort, quite pleasingly, to gratuitously removing his shirt and hoping his pecs and abs are enough to create alchemy. It is hard to believe that anyone would have hired this naive blustering Corbin Fisher boy to observe an election.
Ken James Stewart has multiple roles, and a shirtless scene in a confusing but rousing dream sequence, and acquits all of them well, threading the tale together. Ben Campbell is all devious bluster as the hard-drinking scheming proletariat. Director Richard Rose moves everyone around a sometimes cramped set that is full of surprises, some quite startling the first time they are used, with efficiency. Taken as an epic poem - and the words flow rhythmically and compellingly, even the deliberately disorienting flights of Ukrainian and Russian - there is joy to be found in piecing the disparate fragments into a coherent whole. And that may be the point: life - politics, love and power - can never be trusted at face or even fabulist value.