“The war goes on and Mom writes me every day. And every day is a small, tragic, and funny story.” —Sasha Denisova, playwright
“[T]o not surrender, to resist, is an empowering thing to witness. Hope is material, right? It changes something; it creates the potential for miracles.” —Yury Urnov, director
Woolly Mammoth can be proud of its production of My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion (now playing through October 8). And Washington, DC, theatergoers can be grateful. In its brisk 90-minute running time, Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion is audacious, hilarious, flamboyant, extravagant, and devastating. And if it is not transcendent, the play is on the road to transcendence. As God admits to Mama (while Bach’s “Air on the G String” swells in the background), “You know how to get to me, Olga Ivanovna.” As you leave the theater after the performance, you may find yourself vibrating with joy and admiration for the sense of courage and self-worth embodied in the protagonist Olga Ivanovna, and by extension, whatever it is in the Ukrainian people that could produce such a person. Whether you are reminded of Ethel Waters’ performance of Petunia in Cabin in the Sky or Helene Weigel’s performance of Mother Courage, this production is theater at its most epic.
The play is inspired by the online conversations the playwright, Sasha Denisova, had with her mother, Olga Ivanovna (the character of Mother, played by Holly Twyford). And the entire enterprise is narrated by the character of Daughter (Suli Holum) with a mordant and ironic inflection that is reminiscent of Laurie Anderson at her most Brechtian.
Having lived in Kyiv all of her life, Mother is now, at 82 years old, living in the midst of the Russian invasion of her home and her homeland. In the present circumstances, Mother’s home has become a bunker that she guards with a rifle and for which anyone entering is required to respond with a password. In their conversations, Mother gives Daughter regular updates on the progress of the war and her resistance to it. Her determined effort to resist the Russian incursion, to stop the war and to be a support to others attempting to do so, results in her negotiating with increasingly powerful men who have the power to stop the war. Daughter introduces us to each new encounter with the words “I imagine my mother with…” And then, we see Mother negotiating with Zelenskyy, Macron, Joe Biden, the Russian president (whom she refers to as The Putin), and eventually, as previously noted, God himself.
The entire bunker/home in which Mother revolves (set design, Misha Kachman) from time to time, manually turned by the Man (Lindsay Smiling). Smiling is a man of African heritage and descent. I have in my head images of Ukrainian (i.e., white) men forcing people of African heritage and descent to get off buses as they were attempting to flee Ukraine, while at the same time telling them that their only role here would be to volunteer to fight in the military in defense of Ukraine. It is a forceful contradiction to those images — a suggestion of a different possibility — to see a man of African descent and heritage playing all of the roles of tender, empathic support and desire for Mother. And it is also consistent with the tone of the play that this same Man at one point mutters about how many of these roles is he going to have to take on in the course of this evening.
Each actor here is a versatile powerhouse of a performer. They are strong enough that the audience’s attention can remain focused on the ride that the play takes us on.
In addition to depicting the home that Mother lives in, the set shows us the screens the conversations take place on. They are shown not just in their literalness as computer screens but almost like the frames of a comic book or graphic novel — huge overblown images that fly in, drop in, and interrupt our viewing of the realistic-size narrative conversational squares we were involved in, thus displacing our trains of thought. It is as if we are being reminded that these images of desperation and suffering are not something that we should allow ourselves to get used to or comfortable with. The way the set moves and shifts shape fights against our tendency toward normalization of the insanity of this real-life war that we all have a stake in.
Kelly Coburn’s immersive projections are a marvel. We see the planes, the bombs, the giant buzzing insects flying over us. Everything about this show is hyperbolic and absurd. And at the same time, true.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion plays through October 8, 2023, Thursdays through Sundays, at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (starting at $25 for patrons under 30) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-393-3939 (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.), by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or in person at the Sales Office at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.).
The program for My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are now optional in all public spaces at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. We still encourage anyone who would like to wear a mask to please do so and will have masks available for those who need one. Woolly’s full COVID policy is available here.
My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion
Written by Sasha Denisova
Director: Yury Urnov
Mother: Holly Twyford
Daughter: Suli Holum
Man: Lindsay Smiling
u/s Mother: Claire Schoonover
u/s Daughter: Rachel Sanderson
u/s Man: Daniel Young
Director: Yury Urnov
Translator & Set Designer: Misha Kachman
Adaptor & Co-Dramaturg: Kellie Mecleary
Lighting Designer: Venus Gulbranson
Projection Designer: Kelly Colburn
Co-Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez
Costume Designer: Ivania Stack
Sound Designer & Composer: Michael Kiley
Stage Manager: Becky Reed
A co-production with The Wilma Theater