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Troupe draws on Ukrainian roots to explore war, motherhood in final Pittsburgh performance

“The city is dead,” says a performer in “Mothermotherland,” the new stage work by Slovo. Theater Group. “All our counterattacks are in vain.”

The line has special resonance given the company’s provenance. Paris-based theater artist Audrey Rose Dégez is a Pittsburgh native who was slated to do an artist residency in Kharkiv, Ukraine, this past fall. She never went. Instead, in April, in the wake of the Russian invasion, she chose five artists from Kharkiv to form what became Slovo., with the goal of fighting oppression of Ukrainian culture by promoting it abroad.

Yuliia Linyuk performs in "Mothermotherland."
Slovo. Theater Group
Yuliia Linnik performs in "Mothermotherland."

The group – also including actress and puppeteer Daria Holovchanska; actress and PR manager Yuliia Linnik; actor and director Maksym Panchenko; actress, director, and organizer Olesia Zakharova; and artist, dancer, and linguist Veronika Shuster, first convened in Pittsburgh, in August. Dégez chose as their starting point “I am (a Romantic),” a 1924 novella by the Ukrainian author Mykola Kyvylovy about a security officer who might decide whether to execute his own mother for the sake of his idea of “a commune beyond the hills.”

Slovo. practices “devised” theater, in which a stage work is created not from a pre-written script but based on improvisational workshops. The earliest version of the show premiered in September, at City of Asylum’s Pittsburgh International Literary Festival, but over the course of three months of performances in a dozen U.S. cities, it has continued to evolve. It receives its final Pittsburgh performance Sat., Jan. 7, at City Theatre. Admission is free.

As seen in video of the version performed in early December at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, “Mothermotherland” incorporates physical theater, song, masks, sound design and props in an hour-long exploration of maternity, the war in Ukraine, and the concept of a “motherland.” While Panchenko has left the troupe, there are still six performers, including Dégez’s infant daughter, Lili Maritchka Dégez, who is prominent onstage if generally nonverbal.

Given the provocative source material (author Khyvylovy, part of the Ukraine's "Executed Renaissance," committed suicide in 1933 to protest a friend's arrest and execution) and the experiences of the show’s creators and performers, it’s no surprise that “Mothermotherland” is wrenching. One scene is inspired by text messages sent in Ukraine since the Feb. 24 invasion.

While war isn’t the sole subject of the show, it permeates the work. “War is in each word, in every scene, in every movement, but we are not screaming that this is war, shelling, missiles, dying,” said Linnik. “We are not a newspaper text, but it’s always here.”

The show has a stream-of-consciousness feel, with one scene flowing into the next and the performers’ monologues often overlapping.

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“Living in a time of active war is like living in multiple realities,” said Dégez. “One day you’re just sitting in your apartment making coffee, and then the sirens go off or you receive a text message that there’s bombing, and suddenly another reality comes in. but then as soon as the siren is over or the bombing has stopped … you’re still making that same coffee and drinking that coffee as long as you’re OK.”

Dégez encouraged patrons to read “I Am (a Romantic)” before attending the show. But she said that preparation isn’t necessary, nor is detailed knowledge of current or historical events. “It’s not important to necessarily understand everything. It’s more important to let yourself feel influenced by the images,” she said.

After Saturday’s performance, Slovo. heads to New York City for five performances at A.R.T./New York. The troupe hopes, one day, to eventually present the work in Ukraine.

The Jan. 7 performance at City Theatre is hosted by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. More information is here.

Corrected: January 4, 2023 at 9:49 AM EST
This story was updated to correct information concerning group membership and the manner of Mykola Kyvylovy's death.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: