by Lynn on November 12, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Studio Theatre of Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Crow’s Theatre. Playing until Dec. 3, 2023.

Written by Natal’ya Vorozhbit

Translated by Sasha Dugdale

Directed by Andrew Kushnir

Set and props by Sim Suzer

Costumes by Snezana Pesic

Lighting by Christian Horoszczak

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Andrew Chown

Katherine Gauthier

Craig Lauzon

Diego Matamoros

Seana McKenna

Michelle Monteith

Shauna Thompson

A gripping, harrowing look at war from one of Ukraine’s leading playwrights.

Some background. Andrew Kushnir is an actor, playwright and director. He is also a proud Canadian-Ukrainian. He noticed that there are all sorts of plays by Russian playwrights being produced—Chekov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy etc. but none by Ukrainians. He decided to change that so he lobbied heavily and Crow’s Theatre is now producing Bad Roads by Natal’ya Vorozhbit. And while it’s about war, it’s not about the war in Ukraine raging now. This is the 2014 war when Russia invaded Ukraine to annex Crimea.

The Story. It’s war in the Donbas region. The horrors are seen from various points of view. The play is based on testimonies from the outset of the invasion. And it mainly focuses on the effects of the war on women, relationships and the country’s society. There are scenes illuminating love, sex, violence, loss, trauma, resistance and even humour.  What’s it like to be human during that time; or is humanity destroyed?

The Production. There are six scenes/vignettes established through blackouts that lead from one to the other.

A journalist (Michelle Monteith) takes a research trip to the front line and finds herself falling in love with her military escort.

Teenage girls (Katherine Gauthier, Michelle Monteith, Shauna Thompson) eating seeds, wait for soldiers on a bench, sure that the men love them.

A medic (a beautifully distraught Shauna Thompson) mourns her lover killed in action while she is driven to safety by a soldier (Craig Lauzon illuminating the soldier’s frustration and sense of loss).

A man (Diego Matamoros) is stopped at a checkpoint by two soldiers (Craig Lauzon, Andrew Chown). He doesn’t have his passport. He took his wife’s passport by mistake, but something doesn’t seem right to the soldiers who stopped him.

A woman reporter (Katherine Gauthier) is held captive by a crazed Russian soldier (Andrew Chown) who wants to rape her and inflict pain.

And this last scene takes place before the war, when a woman (Shauna Thompson) is distraught because she has run over a farmer’s hen, admits it and is then toyed with by the farmer (Diego Matamoros) and his wife (Seana McKenna) who try and take advantage of her, until something suddenly makes them stop.

One looks at war from various points of view from the soldiers on both sides, to reporters/journalists/ teenagers, innocent women, a terrified older man with the wrong passport and from people who want to take advantage of a naïve women.

I liked Bad Roads a lot. First of all, the play by Natal’ya Vorozhbit and the translation by Sasha Dugdale is gritty, funny, raw, violent, poetic and an emotional rollercoaster of loss, love, disillusion, rage, a desire to kill and regret about that. At times you’re not sure if characters have multiple involvements because each actor plays a few parts.

For example, is the commander in one scene the same one mentioned in another scene in which he is having an affair with a journalist? I don’t find it confusing, just interesting how war effects so many people and coincidences do happen. What Natal’ya Vorozhbit has done is put a human face on war. We hear from a Ukrainian character who finds that both the Russians and the Ukrainians are less than respectable in war. Both sides feel dehumanized. I thought that equitable vision interesting and fair minded, if such a word can be applied to war.

The production is astonishing in its emotional impact, simplicity, vision and masterful images, all because of the bracing production of director Andrew Kushnir. The playing space is small so every inch counts. Sim Suzer has designed a set in which there is black rubber bits on the ground that makes it look like the earth is blackened through war. There is a bench on one side and a set of steps and a platform on the other side.

The lighting by Christian Horoszczak is stark and creates the sense of foreboding.  Danger is in every shadow. Thomas Ryder Payne’s soundscape of war, bombs and explosions puts you in the middle of it. One finds oneself ducking to miss falling debris. The power of suggestion.  

In the first scene Michelle Monteith plays a knowing journalist who is in love with her soldier escort who is taking her to the front to write about it. She is irreverent, observant about what is going on in the war and keenly aware that she is falling in love with her escort. It’s interesting to see her circle the space in a slow pace, ruminating on every idea and point. Michelle Monteith gives a performance as the journalist (known only as Woman in the programme) that is knowing and moving. She knows the situation is hopeless but she aches with love for the escort, who is married.

There is a scene towards the end in which Katherine Gauthier plays a young woman held captive by Andrew Chown as a soldier. It takes place mainly in the dark but illuminated by one flashlight. The soldier has contempt for the woman and wants to rape her and she is pleading for him not to do it. She tries to reason with him, appealing to him as a person. He feels he has become less than human, crazed. It’s violent, raw and frightening because of the aggressive way he treats her, throws her around the space and hits her.  And you see none of it. The scene and the whole play for that matter, is so well staged by Andrew Kushnir, that your imagination works overboard assuming he is doing to her what it sounds like he is doing. Yet there is never any physical connection.

Andrew Chown as the soldier believes he is less than human at this point. He bashes a bench with his fist, over here, twirling the flashlight so the light is erratic and jarring, while Katherine Gauthier as a woman over there is sliding on the floor, crying, grunting, and appearing to take the abuse. The physicality is brutal because of the way it’s staged (thanks to Andrew Kushnir and flight director Anita Nittoly). All the more remarkable, because the soldier never touches the woman. We only imagine he does.

The performances from Andrew Chown and Katherine Gauthier are stunning.

People acted brutally even before the war. Shauna Thompson is distraught as the woman who ran over the farmer’s chicken. She wants to pay to replace it. The farmer (Diego Matamoros) and his wife (Seana McKenna) quietly ‘play’ the woman and offer her a price. She says she will be back the next day with the money. When she arrives the farmer and his wife don’t over react, but the wife, a quiet, wily, calculating performance by Seana McKenna, begins to recount the value of the dead chicken, the lost revenue from the lack of eggs and one feels uncomfortable for the woman and the duplicity of the couple. But then there is a sound that brings the wife back to humanity and the realization of how badly she has behaved. The horrors of war are beautifully realized in this bracing play.

Comment. When you least expect it, another war comes along and displaces a previous one from the media.The Middle East displaces Ukraine from our media headlines and Bad Roads resonates with both places at the same time.The world has gone insane, but playwrights and theatre people illuminate the humanity and horror of it all.

Crow’s Theatre presents:

Runs until Dec. 3, 2023.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (No intermission)

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