'Bad Roads' by Natal'ya Vorozhbit with translation by Sasha Dugdale
North American premiere now onstage at Crow's Theatre
Credit: Dahlia Katz Pictured: Katherine Gauthier and Andrew Chown
‘Daring and compassionate direction by Andrew Kushnir, but the play may not be for everyone because of its sometimes brutal and graphic depictions. ‘Bad Roads’ becomes an explicitly horrific reminder of the gaping wound of war and its vicious aftermath of human atrocities that can never be erased. The breathtaking ensemble remains raw in their performances throughout the intermission-less running time.”
The North American premiere of Natal’ya Vorozbhit’s ‘Bad Roads’ at Crow’s left me speechless at the conclusion. It was wise to stage it before, on and after Remembrance Day. Vorozbhit’s play remains a stark reminder that war casualties are not just historical facts and data. Instead, the story graphically brings to life that same terror felt by those from years ago continues to this very day. Thus, it’s crucial to continue to remember and never forget there are no winners in war.
This time around, however, I’m at a crossroads.
Understandably, ‘Bad Roads’ may not be for everyone. Future audience members who are easily triggered, consider yourselves warned.
At times, the language is graphic. Intimacy director Anita Nattoly’s meticulous staging of the implied violence is still a graphic depiction of war on civilians. The play is a staggering, wallop-to-the-guts tale of real people. The horrid, cruel toll of human atrocities remains paramount in my mind as I write this article. There were moments when I closed my eyes because I did not want to see signs of violence, however implied.
Nevertheless, when reviewing, it’s essential to keep emotions at bay and examine if the production is worth doing.
Is ‘Bad Roads’ worth doing and seeing in the theatre?
The six-episode script remains compelling and riveting for the same reasons listed under the triggered warnings. Andrew Kushnir’s daring and compassionate direction shapes the breathtaking ensemble’s work to become acutely raw. The cast skillfully weaves and connects events together, leaving a sense there is a conclusion to the plot, even though that apprehension and dread of war still hovers in the air.
Another caveat, though. Intimate relationships between people have been severed. The women and men in the play are victims of war. The latter are sometimes seen as callous, heartless, and cold-blooded, either useless in bed or constant need of ‘oral’ stimulation.
‘Bad Roads’ is set in the Donbas region of Ukraine. A war is raging. Civilians are trying to understand why. The play (divided into six episodes) is based on testimonies from the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Within these six episodes, we are introduced to two reporters who have gone to the front lines to research, one who has been kidnapped by an angry Russian entirely out of his mind. A medic mourns the death of her lover killed in action. Three young women prostitute themselves to soldiers to survive. Pre-war, a young woman appears at a farm because she has run over the owners’ chickens. A witty and comical setup of meaning and words first ensues, quickly heightening the moment's dramatic intensity.
Sim Suzer’s stark set design immediately sets the action in the Studio Theatre's centre with the audience seated on both sides. A brightly intense and circular white spotlight is sharply focused centre stage. Stage right is a brick wall with a bench and what appears to be a tin can, perhaps used for cigarette butts? It is used to spit out the shells from the seeds three of the actors eat. On stage left is another wall with rickety small brick steps leading up to a playing area. Christian Horoszczak’s harsh and shadowy lighting effectively adds to the building tension. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design eerily kept me on guard throughout. There are moments when shelling in the distance can be heard; there are moments with the sound of a bomb detonation that made me jump at least twice in my seat. Snezana Pesic’s costume designs are faithful recreations of war-torn clothing.
Seven extraordinary ensemble performances remain the highlight of this edge-of-the-seat story.
The one haunting episode involves Katherine Gauthier as the kidnapped young reporter and Andrew Chown as the crazed soldier. The frightening realistic synchronicity of these two in the cat-and-mouse staging has me watching every move either makes. Will she outwit him? There were moments when I felt like I was watching a tennis match. I could feel my eyes moving back and forth.
Michelle Monteith’s opening monologue sets the grim tone appropriately for what the audience is about to see. Diego Matamoros and Seana McKenna provide that momentary and necessary bit of humour during pre-war times as Vasya and his wife when the unsuspecting Girl (Shauna Thompson) runs over one of the couple’s chickens. But the motive behind the humour strongly permeates in a matter of seconds. Craig Lauzon as the Soldier and Shauna Thompson as the Girl who mourns her lover’s death are resonant in their performances as two shell-shocked persons destroyed and who can never recover.
Final Comments: ‘Bad Roads’ begs to be discussed immediately following. I have no idea if any talkbacks will take place. After the one hour and fifty-five-minute running time with an outstanding and intensely focused cast who is probably emotionally spent, they might not want to talk immediately following the show.
By all means, see Crow’s production. Just go in with your eyes open. Kushnir wrote he sees the story as more than a play but as a portal where we can enter the world of war and then exit at the end.
Those involved in any war cannot do that.
And that’s what makes the play a powerful one, one to remember and an appropriate one to stage during the month of Remembrance.
Is ‘Bad Roads’ good theatre?
I believe so.
Running time: approximately 1 hour and 55 minutes with no intermission.
‘Bad Roads’ runs until December 3 in the Studio Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, crowstheatre.com or call the Box Office (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010.
A CROW’S THEATRE PRODUCTION
The North American Premiere of ‘Bad Roads’ by Natal’ya Vorozhbit with translation by Sasha Dugdale
Director: Andrew Kushnir
Set and Properties: Sim Suzer
Costume Designer: Snezana Pesic
Lighting Designer: Christian Horoszczak
Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne
Stage Manager: Liliane Stilwell
Fight and Intimacy Director: Anita Nattoly
Performers: Andrew Chown, Katherine Gauthier, Craig Lauzon, Diego Matamoros, Seana McKenna, Michelle Monteith, Shauna Thompson