What was most jaw-dropping about “Mothermotherland,” which is being presented for free through January 15 at A.R.T./New York Theatres, was not that Audrey Rose Dégez breastfed her baby on stage, but that the baby in question, 11-month-old Lili Maritchka Dégez, had been part of the show for the entire hour before that, engaging actively with her mother and the four other actresses in this theater piece inspired by an incomprehensibly brutal story from Ukraine.
The baby’s beatific calm made it hard for me to focus on the (other) performers, despite their elaborately stylized movement and lively stage business — putting on Mummenschanz-like masks, staring into mirrors, carrying luminous exercise balls, pouncing on pillows. But I found it even harder to square what they were doing on stage with the main story they were telling.
The story is a fictional one, written in 1924 by a Ukrainian writer named Mykola Khyvylovy, variously translated as “I (Romance)” or “I am (a Romantic)” in which the protagonist is the head of the local secret police (called the Cheka), who sentences his mother to death for the sake of the revolution.
I didn’t understand the story, and frankly found it the least interesting aspect of a show that was otherwise fascinating for several reasons (not just the baby!) – for its glimpses into the lives of the Ukrainian women in the show (“I’m not a refugee, I’m a runner,” they chant together at one point, running in place), and for how it came about.
Degez, a theater artist who grew up in Pittsburgh but now lives in France, had been accepted into an artist residency in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. She planned to dramatize this particular story because its author, Khvylovy, had lived where the residency was based, in a hundred-year-old building known as Slovo, which had been constructed to provide housing for artists. It was in his apartment in Slovo ninety years ago, that Khyvylovy had committed suicide in front of his friends, as a protest against Russian repression.
In an apt and bitter irony, the Russian invasion of Ukraine made the project impossible in Ukraine. So Degez decided to do it in the United States instead. She found funding to set up an artist residency of her own, selected five Ukrainians from Kharkiv, and created “Mothermotherland” with them:
actress and puppeteer Daria Holovchanska,
actress and PR manager Yulia Linnik,
actress, director, and organizer Olesia Zakharova,
artist, dancer, and linguist Veronika Shuster
actor and director Maksym Panchenko, who was called back to Ukraine to fight.
The show has been touring the U.S. since September (when Lili was seven months old), starting in Degez’s hometown of Pittsburgh. New York is the last stop.
After the performance, I felt the need to talk to members of the company, not trusting that I was culturally literate enough to understand what I had seen, but mostly because I wanted to know about that baby! I talked first to Audrey Rose Degez, and then Yulia Linnik.
Jonathan Mandell: First things first, how did Lili get involved?
Audrey Rose Degez: Lili was born on February 1st. The Russian invasion of Ukraine happened the 24th. It became clear we couldn’t do the project in Kharkiv, so we would do it in America.
Lili was always going to be a part of the project, but actually it was in our early improvisation exercises that we realized that she really loved performing and she really loved when the audience was looking at her. And so from very early on, we made the decision she would be an actress in the show.
Weren’t you worried that she would upstage the adults?
That definitely does happen sometimes. In the beginning she was only in a few scenes. Once she started becoming mobile, it became clear that someone needed to be with her all the time. She might be a distraction, but she’s become integral to the piece, a reminder of innocence when we’re talking about such difficult topics as war, executions and cultural repression.
Can you walk me through your play?
We actually have three layers of stories all happening simultaneously. There’s a dreamlike interpretation of [Mykola Khyvylovy’s] short story. There is the story of the author of the short story, there are our autobiographical stories.
I didn’t understand the short story. You say it’s autobiographical? But he didn’t really kill his mother?
It’s semi-autobiographical. It’s about a Communist who must decide whether or not to execute his own mother to protect the commune.Khyvylovy was a Communist but he repeatedly writes “A storm is coming.” I think in 1924 he already understood Communism as an ideal [different from reality.]
But why would he need to kill his mother?
She was a traitor because she participated in religious acts. She was participating in some activities that went against the commune. And normally he would execute her without even thinking about it, but because it was his mother, there’s more weight to this decision
Why would she have to be executed, rather than jailed or sent to the gulag?
It’s important to understand that the story is very metaphorical and it’s very poetical. It’s not a realistic story.
Why did you choose this story among Khyvylovy’s?
It was one of the few in English, and one of the first I read I was very curious about this question of who is your mother — your real mother by birth, or your country, your idea of a nation? In this story, his idea is the commune, but it’s an imaginary commune; it’s a vision that he has. It doesn’t exist. But he’s willing to kill his mother for it.
I was interested in looking at maternity. Ukraine is a matrilineal storytelling culture. Mother, Motherlands, maternity and motherhood became our central themes.
Jonathan Mandell: How did you get involved in “Mothermotherland”?
Yulia Linnik: I found out about it through friends in Kharkiv, and applied in the spring. I’m an actress, I have a degree in theater from the university, and I also studied in Denmark. But after February 24th, I wasn’t thinking about theater anymore. But then I saw the application, on the last day of the deadline, and I thought I’d write the application just to get my mind off things; remember a past life.
Was the invasion something you were conscious of every day?
Yeah, of course. Kharkiv was under rocket attack every day from February to November. I moved to the suburbs, which was a bit safer. Kharkiv had a population of around 1 1/2 million a lot of them young people, because there are a lot of universities there. More than half the city evacuated because it was one of the most dangerous cities.
I’ve been told that Kharkiv has many theaters. Has there been any cultural activity since the invasion?
Theaters all turned into [organizations for volunteers] But starting in the summer some musicians started to play underground. We have a very good puppet theater and it started giving performances in underground for kids. And there are basements where my friends organize performances – not many, but maybe once a month.
You came to the United States in August. Is this your first time here?
What most surprised you?
The most surprising thing is how open the audience is to interacting – laughing, commenting, responding to the actors. I’m talking about in shows that I saw when were in Chicago and Pittsburgh. In Ukraine we still have this culture of if you come to the theater, you should be quiet, you should behave.
What most struck you about the experience of “Mothermotherland”?
It’s different than everything I’ve done before. Because there is a baby. I never performed with a baby on the stage. And I don’t know anyone who’s performed with a baby on the stage.