Russia’s beastly attack on Ukraine has been in the news daily until it was somewhat sidelined by the Israel-Hamas War on October 7, 2023. The extent of the human and material cost is incalculable and incomprehensible. It is impossible for us to comprehend what the people of Ukraine are going through regardless of how many images we see and stories that we read.
Playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s in Bad Roads attempts to give us some idea of the brutality of the invasion of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the beginning of the horrors and evil of humanity meted out on Ukraine. The play was written in 2017 and we do get some idea of what happened then and what is happening now but I still believe that it is impossible to grasp the extent of the harm done and the evil at work in that country.
The play consists of six scenes or episodes that have some connecting links and I will make brief comments on each.
Of the six scenes of Bad Roads, five take place during the conflict and one occurs before the war. In the first segment, Natasha (Michele Monteith) a woman of forty with a small daughter, addresses Sergei, her lover. She is a journalist and he is an officer in the Ukrainian army and she is interviewing him about the defence of an airport.
Monteith does marvelous work as she works through the script that weaves the personal relationship and the national story, her relationship with Sergei and the events of the war. She mixes the banal, the erotic and the events of a horrible war in the style of the journalist that she is. It is a moving piece of prose that gives the fundamentals of an incident in the war together with the personal story of the narrator. She is frequently funny, always engaging and moving.
Three teenagers trade stories about being young during a war and putting out for soldiers. They are described as Teenage girl 1 (Shauna Thompson), Teenage girl 2 (Michelle Monteith) and Teenage girls 3 (Katherine Gauthier). They get presents from the men that they have sex with and all they do is wait for the whistle from one of them.
It is a subtle, understated and devastating snapshot of what war does to teenagers who have nothing left to offer but their bodies to soldiers. They even imagine that they love them or want them. Among the girls’ giggles, this is a subtle portrayal of what even young people descend to in time of war.
The third vignette shows what can happen when a Headteacher (Diego Matamoros) tries to pass a checkpoint at night. He is drunk and carries his wife’s passport and not his own. The Commander (Craig Lauzon) and the soldier (Andrew Chown) at the checkpoint are abusive and make it clear that in a war zone you can’t go to the toilet without a valid passport. But that is not the real story. What the Commander is up to with the missing girl Tanya is the subtext of the scene. He swears that as an officer he is not doing anything untoward. The Headmaster decides to believe the Commander. We don’t.
A soldier (Craig Lauzon) and a woman (Shauna Thompson) are driving over a bad, deserted road at night. She is tough and domineering to the point of being abusive. The soldier is submissive and tries to be polite. Before the war, he was a professional swimmer and she had a travel agency. It is freezing cold and the car engine will not start after a brief stop. She suggests that they have sex to keep warm.
He hesitates because they are carrying the headless body of her lover who was the soldier’s commander. Then she gets a text message purportedly from her lover who of course is dead. The Russians who cut off his head are sending a message on the dead man’s phone asking her to go and find his head.
In a scene of supreme irony, the two keep warm or at least alive by using the dead man’s body bag for cover. An unbelievable scene.
A teenager (Katherine Gauthier) and the psychotic soldier (Andrew Chown) are in a dark basement. He is a sadistic creep, a foul-mouthed and filthy-minded enemy officer who has drunk the Russian Cool-aid and is intent on sexually humiliating the teenager. She is no fool and manages to stave off his demands by keeping him talking. It is a powerful and frightful episode that has its own conclusion. Gauthier and Chown give powerful performances.
The final episode takes place before the war and I found it to be the weakest among the previous scenes. A girl (Shauna Thompson) stops at a house to confess that she has run over a chicken on the road. She offers to pay the owners, Vasya (Matamoros) and his wife (Seana McKenna), for their loss. They turn out to be incredibly greedy and the girl does not have enough cash to meet their demands. She agrees to go get the cash and return. She returns.
Vorozhbit may wish to point out that greed can occur at any time which is true. What I could not understand is why did the girl who has a nice car and some jewelry returns to the two extortionists. They do find their humanity and the girl does not have to pay but the segment left me cold. Extortionists do not change their ways that easily.
The play is produced in the tiny Studio Theatre which restricts the provision of many sets and scenery. Director Andrew Kushnir does superb work without much in the way of sets especially
by underplaying the vicious scenes. The violent language is there but the acts of violence are played down and more effective for that.
The seven actors play at least two roles each and their acting is outstanding. The play lasts almost two hours without intermission and its impact is stunning. A supreme representation of people in the grip of a harrowing war. Giving us a fifteen-minute interval would not have diminished the impact of the play.
Bad Roads by Natal’ya Vorozhbit, translated by Sasha Dugdale continues until November 26, 2023, in the Studio Theatre of Streetcar/Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. http://crowstheatre.com/