Crow’s Theatre/Bad Roads, written by Natal’ya Vorozhbit, translated by Sasha Dugdale, directed by Andrew Kushnir, Studio Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, until Dec. 3. Tickets here.
The North American premiere of Bad Roads by Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit is harrowing. It may well be one of the most disturbing evenings you have ever spent in the theatre.
The play debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2017 as part of their acclaimed international department development program. Vorozhbit is considered one of the leading Ukrainian playwrights of her generation, and bringing her on board was a real find for English-speaking audiences.
Bad Roads presents six episodes set during the Donbass war that began in 2014 after Russia seized the Crimea. In this conflict, which is still going on, separatists loyal to Russia have declared independence from Ukraine. The Donbass fight has now been absorbed into the larger Ukrainian war after the Russian invasion in 2022.
Apparently Vorozhbit’s main intention was to focus on women’s experience in wartime. The play is also a damning representation of the dehumanising impact of war. None of the characters portrayed will ever be the same again. That is very clear.
Vorozhbit put together her scenes using recorded first-hand accounts akin to verbatim theatre, personal recollections from friends and relatives, monologues written by teenage girls that she mentored, plus her own trip to the Donbass. Bad Roads, however, is not cold, dry docudrama. Vorozhbit is a gifted playwright who understands the dramatic arc. She has woven her material masterfully into searing fiction that is based on fact.
Bad Roads features a cast of seven. Each actor plays at least one major character plus minor characters. The performances are outstanding, and Canadian-Ukrainian director Andrew Kushnir, who must care deeply about Vorozhbit’s intentions, has ensured a production that is savage and brutal. The audience is spared nothing.
In the heartbreaking opening monologue, Michelle Monteith portrays a journalist researching the siege of Donetsk airport. She falls in love with her Ukrainian patriot guide who takes her to the front line. What is fascinating here is how she is able to bury the terrible realities of war within her obsession.
The next scene features three teenage girls (Katherine Gauthier, Shauna Thompson and Monteith) who are waiting for their soldier lovers. Sleeping with them brings them favours. When Gauthier’s grandmother (Seana McKenna) arrives to bring her home, the sheer acceptance of this teenage behaviour is mindboggling.
In the third scene, we meet a head teacher (Diego Matamoros) who has been stopped at a checkpoint by a soldier (Andrew Chown) and his commander (Craig Lauzon). The teacher is in trouble because he can’t find his passport. How Vorozhbit involves the female aspect in this all-male scene is canny indeed.
The fourth episode features Thompson and her driver (Lauzon) as medics who are taking the headless body of Thompson’s lover to be reunited with his family. Her monumental, hysterical grief reaches such excruciating proportions that it is an assault on the senses.
We go from bad to worse in the next scene which features Gauthier as a prisoner of a psychopathic separatist solder (Chown). She has been raped and tortured and worse, and the tension and terror here is beyond unbearable. (Kudos to fight and intimacy director Anita Nittoly for helping to create the graphic physicality of this episode.)
Bad Roads has been called “darkly comic” on more than one occasion, although until this point, the humour, if it is there, has certainly eluded me. And then along came episode six.
We are told as the scene begins that it is a situation that occurred before the war. Here we meet a Ukrainian peasant Vasya (Matamoras) and his wife (McKenna). Thompson, clearly a city slicker, has run over one of their chickens and wants to pay compensation for it. The crux of the scene is how the wily peasants take advantage of the situation.
I found this farcical episode to be one of the most disturbing of all. What is Vorozhbit saying about the Ukraine? That they are all a bunch of cunning thieves? Or by their sheer cunning they will survive?
Taken together, the horrors of war that Vorozhbit presents are so vital, so realistic, so frightening, that you feel you are in the warzone yourself. The play is also presented in the claustrophobic small studio. The audience is on both sides of the action allowing for just a small alleyway in between for the actors. It is an up close and personal encounter.
Sim Suzer, set and properties designer, has come up with some startling effects, augmented by Christian Horoszczak’s astonishing lighting. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design adds to the trepidation. In fact, the production values of this show are monumentally clever for such a small space. A special kudos goes to costume designer Snezana Pesic for realism writ large.
Director Kushnir has covered himself in glory with this tight production. Everything works, which is why Bad Roads is such a powerhouse of a theatre experience.
As for those Ukrainian Bad Roads, let’s not forget the beleaguered people who are still walking down them.
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