In Red Theater’s Brutal Sickle, Four Village Women Try to Survive the Ukrainian Genocide

Dvorak as Halka and Ellis as Yasia. Photo courtesy Red Theater.

One of the missions of theater is to tell untold stories, as Elizabeth Lovelady points out in her director’s note for Sickle, the new production at Red Theater. The story of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, is certainly one of those untold stories. The word Holodomor is Ukrainian for “killing by hunger.”

The famine or genocide,which caused the deaths of 3 to 8 million Ukrainians, was used as a deliberate tool by Joseph Stalin to repress the Ukrainian independence movement as well as Ukrainian language and culture. Stalin’s policies moved small farmers from their land to collective farms, which were required to deliver most of their crops to the Soviet government. Troops roamed the countryside, keeping people from leaving their farms and villages and prohibiting movement of foodstuffs to the rural population. (The story provides a backdrop for the relationship between Russia and Ukraine today.)

Red Theater is staging Abbey Fenbert’s Sickle, written in 2015, in a world premiere production at Strawdog Theatre. The 100-minute play tells the story of four women in a Ukrainian village, where the OGPU (later known as the KGB) has captured all the men and sent them to Siberia. The women are left to run the collective farm; complying with the government’s demand for grain leaves them in a state of starvation as well as fear of attack.

Anna (Moira Begale) and Iryna (Christine Vrem-Ydstie) are two strong women of the village. Anna, middle-aged and unmarried, divides the meager grain available for her neighbors, while General Iryna, wearing a soup pot as a helmet, watches from the bell tower of the former church for invaders. Iryna’s baby, Marko, is the only male in the village. She nurses him and the others help care for him. Two other women, Halka (Catherine Dvorak) and Yasia (Brittany Ellis), wearing her husband’s military overcoat, prowl the countryside on the lookout.

Vrem-Ydstie as Iryna. Photo courtesy Red Theater.

Village life is disrupted by the arrival of Nadya (Katherine Bourne), a young, educated member of the Komsomol, the Russian youth brigade. She says she has come to help run the collective farm (and maintain loyalty to the government). “You cannot live in a nation that doesn’t exist,” she tells them. “All the little nations, all the little kingdoms, they’re just false divisions among people. You don’t live in Ukraine, you live in the Soviet Union.”

Sickle tells an important story but watching it is painful and torturous. Seeing a loving mother trying to nurse her baby when her milk has gone dry is the beginning of the end. The story is searing but moves slowly toward its rather predictable conclusion. The five actors perform capably in their roles. Ellis is most colorful as Yasia, the hard-drinking and passionately singing partisan, while Vrem-Ydstie is a sympathetic villager and mother. As important as the story is, director Lovelady could improve its impact by moving the action along more briskly.

Jessie Howe is responsible for creating scenic design and props for the crowded village scene, while Hailey Rakowiecki created the costuming. Makena Levine is credited for baby design, which notably was more visible than most on-stage infant representations. Ali Kinsella consulted on Ukrainian language and history.

Red Theater’s tagline is, appropriately, “Ask dangerous questions.” Making the story of the Holodomor known to a wider audience is a good step. The USSR suppressed news about the genocide for decades. It was not until the 1980s that information began to come out, with the distribution of a documentary film, Harvest of Despair, produced by members of the Ukrainian community in Canada, and the publication of Robert Conquest’s book, Harvest of Sorrow. Only recently, in 2006, Ukraine and 15 other countries recognized the Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet government. If  you’d like to know more about the Holodomor, the Wikipedia page offers a detailed history.
The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art mounted an exhibition in 2013 titled Artists Respond to Genocide dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor, which I wrote about for Gapers Block.
Sickle by Red Theater continues at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, through July 29. Tickets are $20 for performances Thursday-Sunday.
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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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