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Katherine Gauthier and Andrew Chown in a scene from Bad Roads at Crow's Theatre in Toronto.Handout

  • Title: Bad Roads
  • Written by: Natal’ya Vorozhbit
  • Director: Andrew Kushnir
  • Actors: Andrew Chown, Katherine Gauthier, Craig Lauzon, Diego Matamoros, Seana McKenna, Michelle Monteith, Shauna Thompson
  • Company: Crow’s Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Nov. 26

Critic’s Pick

Where is a war fought these days?

Bad Roads, Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s brutally revealing 2017 drama set amid a conflict with Russian forces then limited mostly to the eastern Donbas region of in her country, is currently having its North American premiere at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto.

And while it may not be up-to-date on the details of this war that has made much of the world feel on the brink since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the play does feel up-to-the-minute in its depiction of warfare and its wider reach because of our hyperconnected digital culture.

This is a reality that is only really fully coming into focus in Canada amid the war in Middle East: Everywhere is now a borderland.

In Bad Roads, which features a stacked cast that includes Soulpepper and Stratford stars Diego Matamoros and Seana McKenna, handsome soldiers fighting on the front have Facebook followers who like their posts and leave comments about having their babies. After they are killed, their phones are used to taunt and terrorize their loved ones.

Even the language spoken by the enemy seems like a hateful troll’s screed you’ve scrolled by a million times on social media while on a coffee break – and maybe didn’t even take the time to block. “Democracy is a cunning god, those snowflakes and queers thought it up so we all have to pray to it and they’re hiding behind it like it’s a wall,” says a Russian separatist here, in between terrible acts of physical and sexual violence.

With a troupe called the Theatre of the Displaced, Vorozhbit – one of Ukraine’s foremost theatrical voices – visited Donbas extensively in the lead up to writing Bad Roads for the Royal Court in London, England – where it had its world premiere in this English-language translation by Sasha Dugdale. (It was subsequently adapted into a film.)

Despite being penned for a foreign audience, Bad Roads does not try to explain the specifics of the fighting that broke out between pro-Russian (and Russian-backed) separatists and Ukrainian government forces after the Maidan Revolution in 2014.

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Katherine Gauthier, left, and Seana McKenna in a scene in Bad Roads.Handout

Especially given all that has happened since then, the exact political context and power dynamics of some of the play’s six loosely connected scenes can be hard to immediately grasp; even with Ukraine flags affixed to uniform sleeves, there is a sense of universality from the colour-rich casting and all the actors speaking in their Canadian version of English.

It is worth looking up translator Dugdale’s 2017 essay in The Guardian “Sex under siege: Ukrainian drama uncovers how war affects intimacy” if you want to really situate the time period the play captures and the real stories it is inspired by.

The effect of the war on women and girls is often at the front of scenes. One tense scene involves a drunk-driving teacher (Diego Matamoros) who is stopped at a checkpoint by a soldier (Craig Lauzon) – and is discovered not to have his passport and to have a Kalashnikov in his trunk. But the power dynamics shift and morality becomes murkier after he spies one of his students nearby.

In another miniplay, two soldiers (Lauzon and Shauna Thompson) drive down a snowy road in a jeep with the headless body of a commander in the back. Two overlapping mental breakdowns occur after their vehicle breaks down in sub-zero temperatures.

The most upsetting scene involves a female Ukrainian journalist (Katherine Gauthier) who has been abducted by a male Russian separatist (Andrew Chown) and is being held prisoner in a basement where she is sexually tortured.

In an attempt to stop this, the journalist tries to appeal to the soldier’s humanity – to get him to think of his grandmother, of his childhood pet. He however, insists he is an animal and insists on showing it. Both Gauthier and Chown deliver exceptional and brave performances here.

Director Andrew Kushnir’s staging avoids directly realistic depictions of horror, aided by Christian Horoszczak’s lighting and Sim Suzer’s abstracted set, but goes for metaphorical actions that are hardly less disturbing.

North American theatre artists have been having a serious discussions about the representation of trauma on stage but, at a time where it hard to avoid real video and images of torture and deaths of children online, that conversation can seem quaint.

Bad Roads, which I saw in its final preview and found its feet after an overly low-key opening monologue, is hard to watch at times, but you ultimately wouldn’t call anything in it gratuitous. Indeed, in the most debased moments depicted, the most revealing conversations take place.

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