Refinery ArtSpace, 114 Hardy St, Nelson

16/03/2024 - 23/03/2024

Production Details

Playwrights: Nina Zakhozhenko, Theresa Rebeck
Choreographer: Jasmina Sotelo
Director: Alex Borovenskiy

ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine (Kyiv, Ukraine)

Love At Times tells stories of love at times of war. It is a musical with songs of ABBA, Garbage and Okean Elzy, lots of guns amd love stories.

Story 1
‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: Two fighters from Kyiv Territorial Defence discuss their love relationships.
Story 2
Katie & Frank: a regular family quarrel of “you never listen to me” with one difference – she’s got a gun in her purse…

Founded in 2018, ProEnglish Theatre is an independent English-speaking Theatre in Kyiv, Ukraine. Their repertoire consists of performances in English by mostly American and British playwrights. ProEnglish Theatre tours Ukraine and Europe, taking part in various festivals in Ukraine and abroad, and is a member of International Amateur Theatre Association (IATA).

In 2018 the theatre took part in theatre festivals Komora 2018, Theatre Day Fest and founded their own festival – Pro.ACT.Fest, which is held annually, bringing together English-speaking theatres from Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Canada, USA and more.

In 2020 the performance Blondi/Bunker (directed by Valeri Leif) received a prize for the best directing and ensemble at the Bremen Festival Kultur on Tour. During lockdown in 2022 the theatre realised their projects online (ProEnglish Live Instagram lectures 11 Mondays at 11 about contemporary theatre, and Artist Talk).

From the start of the full-scale invasion, ProEnglish Theatre transformed into ArtShelter, where they hosted a bombshelter in the basement of the theatre for residents of nearby buildings, while continuing creating art. Since then, ProEnglish theatre created seven new performances and has travelled to festivals including Prague Fringe, RVK Fringe, Stockholm Fringe and Gothenburg Fringe.

Warnings: Language, Gun shots
Venue: Refinery ArtSpace
Sat 16 March at 4:30pm
Sat 23 March at 4:30pm
Rating: 14+
Tickets: Free / Paper koha

Actors: Slava Krasowska, Daniil Prymachov, Dan Vynohradov, Olexii Afanasiev, Michael Zagaiko
Piano: Olexii Afanasiev

Vocal coach: Valerie Leif

Film , Theatre , Dance-theatre , Musical ,

50 minutes

To work for peace, is to uproot war from ourselves

Review by Leslie Azziz 18th Mar 2024

I walk into Love at Times by ProEnglish Theatre with my heart beating with anticipation for it to get broken. Reviewing a performance about love at times of war, performed by Ukrainian actors (Slava Krasowska, Daniil Prymachov, Dan Vynohradov, Olexii Afanasiev, Michael Zagaiko), who kept writing and playing in bomb shelters after the invasion of their country, shouldn’t omen anything less than heartbreak. 

The person at the door points me to the back of a room with no stage and a screen, ready for the play button to be pressed. It took me a little while before I connected the dots… this isn’t just the waiting room – we are here to watch two acts, filmed and recorded on a screen. My neighbor expresses his surprise to me, and our shared disappointment gets me to my first point: why did we even expect a theatre company of Ukrainian actors to find the means to tour internationally (to little old Nelson Fringe, out of all places!) to live perform about love while more and more Ukrainians are being drafted and conscientious objectors prosecuted? I suddenly felt slightly at odds with the subject matter. 

The first act of this performance is called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which is a reference to a discriminatory military bill passed in the US in the mid nineties which basically prevented or discouraged queer active service members to live and serve as their full selves. It opens with two Ukrainian soldiers standing behind a pile of white sand bags in a small dimly-lit room. The low ceilings make for quite a claustrophobic atmosphere, and I reminded myself that this piece might have been recorded in a bunker.

 One of the soldiers made and brought a piece of cake for the other’s birthday. From the first lines, it is easy to decipher the emotional tensions explored in this piece. One man is quite gentle and cheerful in his attempt to celebrate the other’s birthday. The other is responding to this offer with drastic mood oscillations and turmoil. His body is held in straight lines, rigid, and quickly corrected if it dares to be softened by the offer of the other soldier. We learn that he is on duty, and therefore cannot let his hair down. He lashes out at this soldier, who we quickly guess is his partner. Slowly, the conversation lets the audience understand that his anxieties aren’t just about the responsibilities of being on duty. These two men are not able to live their love openly in the army, and the emotional turmoil comes from “being busted” as a gay couple. As the conversation progresses, we understand more and more of where the agitation stems from, and the risks, physical, emotional, social and spiritual that those two men are living under. 

The conversation is punctuated by short dream-like moments where the two lovers connect, enjoy each other through singing, dancing, playing together or act out some of the tensions present in their relationship. Those moments are staged with different light settings and give depths to this piece – we are also privy to what goes on inside the psyche of those two lovers and soldiers. Those moments also provide a visual representation of the contrasting realities those men are moving through. 

It is rich, and I could write so much about how much ground this short piece covers: from what it means to be a man, a gay man, a gay man in an homophobic army, to the inner conflict of finding oneself secretly grouped with the “enemy” when homophobic language is used to dehumanize them, the layering of struggles for freedom (personal and national), to dealing with the closeness of death and inflicting death, and a further commentary on the seemingly futility of one’s life in war – “I am just a tiny cog in the war machine”. This piece is steeped with a strong flavor of agitation and powerlessness and opens so many difficult ponderings on why we still haven’t figured out how to not kill each other. Love however, persists throughout, in the shape of a fig birthday cake with a candle. Discreet, delicate, attuned, persistent. The scene ends with a blackout, except for the birthday candle, over which the two lovers look at each other on top of the barricade, suspended in time. 

The second act is called “Katie and Frank” and starts in what seems to be a public pub. The piano is playing, Katie and Frank walk in and proceed to sing an hilariously over the top and neurotic love song to each other. It’s comedic and passionate but I quickly get this viscerally-felt discomfort, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The couple settles at a table and as the song stops, their attitude towards each other couldn’t differ more drastically from the song. Barely acknowledging each other, not facing one another, short and cutting small talk, the shoe has, indeed, dropped. Their interactions are painfully gridlocked and barren and I catch myself wondering if this is some kind of metaphor for the leading up to international conflicts. 

Stereotypical tropes of heterosexual relationships are used in this piece. Katie seems to be making a seemingly simple request to her partner (“can you call your mother because she’s getting anxious”), Frank, who cuts her off and rolls his eyes. Katie doesn’t give up, mentions a few insights from her therapy session, and Frank erupts by telling her she’s insufferable, leaves the conversation abruptly, comes back still escalated and lashes out on Katie about another unrelated topic… which in turns makes her erupt in some kind of rage which many would qualify as “hysterical”. Not much information is given to understand why Frank would be so reluctant to call his mother, and why this would become such a convoluted issue. We do know that Katie is under Frank’s mother’s pressure, who is quite distressed about getting a hold of him on the phone. 

There are three other actors on stage: one bartender, one quiet drunk customer and one piano player used sporadically through the performance to garner support, amplify and/or provide contrast to what the main protagonists are expressing. This works quite well at keeping the scene dynamic and interesting for a while. It culminates in Katie making an impassioned (iconic, even!) speech about why and how she’s decided to buy a gun “because she wants to kill her husband”, which she then takes out of her bag. The four men on stage suddenly listen and respond a little more seriously to her. The piece takes a dark, absurd and hilarious turn when Katie uses her gun as a threat to get Frank to call his mother. It takes more firmness to get Frank to execute the task, at point blank. The stage goes dark, with only one spotlight on Frank sitting at the bar, an old phone from the 1960s in his hand.

The conversation is brief. Frank, as we guessed, is not much of a talker. But it is long enough to provide contextual relief: Frank is a soldier whose life is at risk everyday. His mother’s distress comes from not knowing whether her son will be dead or alive tomorrow. We can make many hypotheses about the conditions which make Frank act the way he acts. Katie and Frank’s intimacy, maybe once as passionate playful and deep as the first song intuited, becomes a victim of much wider violent and cultural influences – gender roles, and gender roles in times of war, post traumatic stress symptoms, toxic masculinity… I would have loved for this moment to land earlier in the piece so that more could be explored about Frank’s deeper feelings towards calling his mother. 

Those two performances showed distressed men in times of war, pushed to resist love, to resist tenderness, to resist intimacy and connections and threatening their own moral and physical integrity. Knowing that those plays were written after the Russian invasion, I marvel at the unrecognized courage of those artists to write, act out, and mirror back to us the immediacy of the reality they find themselves in, even when this reality is life-threatening. Those two performances speak to a certain context, but offer personal reflection on the articulation of nationalism, patriarchal masculinity, and the life-long devastating effects of war on our relationships and families. I have many men in my family who were sent off to wage wars on others and never openly spoke about it upon return, for the rest of their lives. I would like to see more performances where men explore their relationship with death, with vulnerability, with demanded (self)-aggression, with tenderness. 

War wounds us all, and peace belongs to all of us. As I conclude this review, I am reminded of the following quote from Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds- our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. (…) To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.”


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The war grinds on but the dramatic voices will not be stilled

Review by Dave Smith 16th Mar 2024

The Pro Act festival ran during August 2022 long after the war in Ukraine was unleashed by Putin’s Russia. It went under the banner of ‘Unbreakable’ and generally seems not to owe its derivation solely from the act of just resistance in a cruel and unnecessary war. Its declared aim generally is to mount shortish plays spoken in English so as to create an English theatrical atmosphere whether or not the subject of the play is overtly war-related.

One might accept, though, that art generated in these awful times of full scale war (again and again and yet again) in Europe implies by its very nature it is war-related. If in the last war a filmed performance of a one act play done in the Warsaw ghetto had been smuggled out, its mere existence would make it one of the great war documents in history.

What we see here has that sort of epochal tinge to it. It speaks both defiance and a commitment to art in its own very special time. It is intensely personal and is not anti-Russian propaganda. 

We see two short plays, recorded with a live audience: Love at times and Katie and Frank. In the first, two young chaps man a poorly erected military post wreathed in a serious lack of stage lighting.  In the Citizen Kane tradition of theatrical auto suggestion, a derisory number of white sandbags and a single AK47 automatic rifle are the only major stage props. It is the birthday of one of them and there is much fencing as to whether a tiny cake is acceptable on this hazy frontline at the back of nowhere.

It is a short step from cakes to the reveal that they are homoerotic lovers in tatty ‘uniforms’. The huge war issue has become small then large again (within their own dubious lives) at this seminal moment. All the great US war clichés of Hollywood have a quick turn. The audience of 20 or so even laughs nervously at the ‘they are lovers’ development. Mention is made of the cowardly “don’t ask don’t tell” strategy that was devised in the Clinton era. Nothing hinges on that, tough.

Then personal terror strikes as it comes out that the local commanders may be well aware of the love match. This provokes a sort of lovers’ tiff. Then all calms down as the lads philosophise that their fates and soldierly deeds and shortcomings might just as easily be forgotten – not after the frigging war but during it.  The audience, by laughter and applause, heartily approves though I note that some sit on their hands as if envisaging themselves in some future war crimes trial. Eastern Europe is not Invercargill and never will be. 

The second piece is riddled with melodrama and mirth-making Yankee slang not to mention a slightly grotesque sung parody of ‘Mama Mia’ – by ABBA, no less. The scene has shifted from the murky military line to a well-lit bar where the Ukrainian roues and wrecks seemingly gather after a long day among the sandbags. In fact it looks more like a sparse rehearsal room bar. Katie and Frank are in ‘talking mannequin’ mode; continually spouting the well-worn C grade words: “We love each other so much.” They come on like Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

Then out of nowhere, dearest Katie goes super macho and threatens her man with a gun for, wait for it, NOT ringing his hag of a mother and then leaving his much-trumpeted lover Katie to explain that cruel dereliction away. Again, the big burgeoning and violent issue versus the everyday. Now we get the torrent of American jargon about rights to be armed, rights to kill, the gun owner buys that right, it’s simple logic, etc, etc. No overt plot moves take that as a durable metaphor beyond the room and into the wider war.

Again, this couple, like the last one, simply work it out (Frank rings his mother at gunpoint as the over-bright lights dim). Again, it is a brave (if somewhat bizarre) performance and the air of well-coached spoken English, itself, carries the day.

So then, do we have to make allowances for the fact that the two plays are performed in a war torn country where theatrical sandbags may be hard to come by or a missile-borne bomb could at any unforeseen time take out the whole shooting box?

I think not. The two works exist on their own terms. My only regret is that I see them here only on video and not in the flesh.  No patronizing ‘allowances’ need be made. This is how things are. The war grinds on but the dramatic voices, be they Shakespearian or akin to old style radio drama, will not be stilled.

Please may this appalling war stop. But also, please, keep the flame of art and a people’s self-realisation burning at a dreadful and dangerous time in the troubled history of humanity.    

The actors are Dan Vynoradov, Daniil Pryonachov, Slava Krasowska, Olexi Afanasiev, Andrii Kasinov. Vocal coach, Valerie Leif. Choreographer, Jasmina Sotelo. Music, Olexi Afanasiev.


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