Onstage, Witches and Cossacks Strike a Chord With Ukrainians

By John Mercury May 29, 2024

The lines for the show snake down the block, with people waiting for up to seven hours to buy tickets at the theater in downtown Kyiv. Videos of the performance have drawn millions of views online.

The smash hit isn’t a popular Broadway musical or a series of concerts by a pop star — it’s a play based on a classic 19th-century Ukrainian novel, “The Witch of Konotop,” and the mood is anything but upbeat. Consider the opening line: “It is sad and gloomy.”

Mykhailo Matiukhin, an actor in the production, said that is what has struck a chord with Ukrainians because it shows “what we are living through now.”

“Tragedy comes and takes everything from you, your love and your home,” he said.

The play dramatizes the story of a Cossack leader in a Ukrainian community almost 400 years ago as he tries to root out witches that local townspeople believe are responsible for a drought. The action takes place against the backdrop of a military threat from czarist Russia — something that has resonated with Ukrainians today as they absorb daily, and often discouraging, news about the battlefield and brace for missile strikes from modern Russia on their cities at night.

Ivan Uryvsky, the director, said audiences were particularly captivated by the sense of impending tragedy in the play, which is performed at the Ivan Franko theater in Kyiv.

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