Review: BAD ROADS at Streetcar Crowsnest

Memorable scenes from Ukraine's Donbas region

By: Nov. 13, 2023
Review: BAD ROADS at Streetcar Crowsnest

“Don’t tempt us!”

When Seana McKenna’s unnamed farm woman utters this line near the end of Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s BAD ROADS, now playing at Crow’s Theatre, she summarizes a major theme of the play: with hard times, grief, or war comes the temptation for regular people to do great evil. These “Bad Roads” Vorozhbit leads us down are both metaphorical and literal; they’re the roads into and out of the Donbas, the Ukrainian region laid siege to by Russian forces in 2014. Vorozhbit’s play, based on several visits to the region, was written in 2017 before the war’s escalation into its current state, but is if anything even more relevant now that  the world is finally starting to take terrified notice of what is happening.

It's fascinating, disturbing stuff with a powerhouse cast, literally unsettling: never completely relaxing into a style or structure, it stretches deep into the monstrous before snapping back to remind us that the high and low road often originate from the same place.

In the intimate Studio Theatre, we’re encased within gray walls that simulate an army barracks or abandoned building. Mulch covers the floor, and lighting comes from a single focused spotlight in the centre of the room, as if to encourage an interrogation. As the play begins, booming noises reverberate throughout the space. Are the noises drums, bombs, thunder, or loud, heavy footsteps? Perhaps all of the above. The set decoration, or lack thereof, is effectively claustrophobic, and efficiently uses small details like a bench and the stylized front grill of a car to ground us within the pile of darkness. Set designer Sim Suzer creates a believably weathered, raised area to one side, covered with grimy blue tiles, that serves quadruple duty as stage, car, freezer, and bath, peeled away more and more as scenes progress.

Like the set piece, the play goes through a type of erosion, layers of palatability and gentility being shaved off to expose the rottenness within. Vorozhbit has been described as “the Ukrainian Sarah Kane” (Sarah Ukrane?) and the comparison is apt. The English playwright Kane was well known for her plays that twinned stories of war and intimate violence, spoke of despair and redemption, and shocked audiences with on-stage brutality. BAD ROADS ticks all these boxes. This is a show which earns each of its content warnings, which I encourage you to read before deciding to attend; it’s a rewarding watch, but by no means an easy one.

Our first meeting with a journalist (a rivetingly understated Michelle Monteith) whose trip to the front lines leads to a tentative and twisted love story in the midst of disaster, is beautifully written and richly detailed. Vorozhbit’s script, translated by Sasha Dugsdale, offers no real details about the conflict itself, except for the occasional burst of hate-fueled rhetoric from soldiers; its specifics, instead, are in human actions and reactions to conflict and extraordinary situations becoming ordinary.

While the monologue sets the stage for the rest of the scenes, laying down the thematic connective tissue, it also lulls the audience into a false sense of security: this is viewer-friendly theatre about war with a relatable main character, just bold enough to be dismaying and a bit titillating, to make us think, “oh, how sad.” The tide soon turns, however, with a set of five other playlets that get more and more shocking in the way they deal with human depravity.

The stories aren’t all completely connected, but small filaments stick them together. There’s the idea of love emerging in strange, unpalatable ways during wartime, both genuine and mercenary. There’s musings about being one of a soldier’s several “other women,” and who gets to grieve in what way at his funeral. There are past, small tragedies which once loomed large contrasting with utter devastation later on, and journalists finding a larger story than anticipated, unwittingly becoming part of the story. There’s the haunting spectre of technology preventing characters from closure, with ghoulish texts sent “from” a dead soldier that really come from his killers, bodies preserved in refrigerators, frozen in time, or a cellphone that alerts a dead captain’s squadron to the presence of his body when a call comes in from his mother.

The number of almost-connections is tantalizing, but might also be a little frustrating; they promise cohesion between the scenes but ultimately don’t deliver, adding potential confusion. For example, I heard several audience members after the performance trying to figure out whether two journalists were the same character (they weren’t), when that mental energy might better be spent focusing on the already complex show’s messages.

The committed, intense cast breathes painful life into the agonizing scenes. Both of the soldiers played by Craig Lauzon are disillusioned and world-weary in different ways. One is disgusted at the questioning he receives from the reliably excellent Diego Matamoros’ character, a seemingly foolish but increasingly eagle-eyed schoolteacher, who sobers up enough after being caught behind the wheel at a checkpoint without his passport to question who he sees being kept in the barracks; another is disillusioned with his former commander’s mission as he drives the man’s headless body home, his girlfriend (Shauna Thompson, exploding with traumatized rage) becoming increasingly unhinged in the front seat.

McKenna’s two small roles, the aforementioned farmer whose chicken meets an untimely end and that of a grandmother trying to persuade her granddaughter to return home instead of dallying with a Russian soldier, almost seem a waste of her grand talent, but she makes the most of both of them with tough, ironic humour. And in the show’s most horrific and violent moments, where a young female journalist is sexually and physically tortured by another Russian soldier in a scene that’s part war crime and part BDSM, Katherine Gauthier and Andrew Chown may make bile rise in the back of your throat.

Ultimately, the variation in tone between the scenes shows the hazard of going full Sarah Kane; while they’re impactful like a punch to the face, I found the moments that pushed the boundaries of the horror that can be shown on stage to lack the emotional resonance other scenes had in abundance. It’s both too much and, as directed by Andrew Kushnir with fight choreography by Anita Nittoly, not enough, the violence alternating between close-up realism and stylization with several feet of space between the actors.

On the other hand, there’s plenty in BAD ROADS to take your breath away.

In a moment amidst the chaos, in the icy fields, stumbling from a stalled jeep with her lover’s body in the trunk, Thompson’s bereaved girlfriend lies down in the mulch. Half autopilot and half benediction, her arms move back and forth, creating a snow angel; a pair of wings, scraped clean in the frozen dirt. The scenes continue, but the bare patches remain, a kind of holy absence.

We were here, they say.

Don’t be tempted to forget us.

Photo of Shauna Thompson and Craig Lauzon by Dahlia Katz

BroadwayWorld Awards Voting


Review: CHRIS, MRS. at Winter Garden Theatre Photo
Review: CHRIS, MRS. at Winter Garden Theatre

CHRIS, MRS., bills itself as a musical version of a Hallmark holiday movie, and it does exactly—and I mean exactly—what it says on the tin. If you are a lover of Hallmark family entertainment, you’ll be over the moon for this show. It boasts entertaining lyrics, killer dance moves, adorable children, and a quirky, can-do spirt. That also means that it has ALL the parts of a Hallmark movie, for better or for worse.

Nancy Webster to Step Down as Executive Director of Young Peoples Theatre Photo
Nancy Webster to Step Down as Executive Director of Young People's Theatre

Young People’s Theatre has announced that Nancy Webster will step down as Executive Director at the end of the 2023.24 season, after more than 15 years of extraordinary leadership.

Interview: Liam Tobin And Danielle Wade of CHRIS, MRS. at the Winter Garden Theatre Photo
Interview: Liam Tobin And Danielle Wade of CHRIS, MRS. at the Winter Garden Theatre

Are you a Christmas cheerleader? A decorated-tree devotee? Do you love Hallmark Christmas movies so much you wish you could see one live? Well, CHRIS, MRS., aims to fulfil that need.

Talia Schlanger Comes to TD Music Hall in February Photo
Talia Schlanger Comes to TD Music Hall in February

TD Music Hall welcomes Talia Schlanger on Thursday, February 15, 2024 who today releases “See You Home”, her new single from her forthcoming debut album Grace for the Going, available February 2, 2024 via Latent Recordings.

From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbi... Ilana Lucas">(read more about this author)


Blake and Clay's Gay Agenda in Toronto Blake and Clay's Gay Agenda
The Assembly Theatre (12/27-12/30)
The Laundry List in Toronto The Laundry List
Al Green Theatre (Miles Nadal JCC) (1/27-1/28)
Christmas Birthdays Suck! in Toronto Christmas Birthdays Suck!
The Assembly Theatre (12/09-12/14)
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play in Toronto It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Young People's Theatre (11/20-12/30)
My Big Fat Immigrant Christmas in Toronto My Big Fat Immigrant Christmas
The Assembly Theatre (12/19-12/23)
Hypothetical Baby in Toronto Hypothetical Baby
Tarragon Theatre (12/08-12/17)
The Inheritance Part 1 & 2 in Toronto The Inheritance Part 1 & 2
Bluma Appel Theatre (3/22-4/07)
Chicago (Non-Equity) in Toronto Chicago (Non-Equity)
Ed Mirvish Theatre (12/27-1/09)
Rapunzel, the Family-Friendly Musical! in Toronto Rapunzel, the Family-Friendly Musical!
Wychwood Theatre (12/02-1/07)PHOTOS VIDEOS
Universal Child Care in Toronto Universal Child Care
Canadian Stage (2/13-2/25)

Recommended For You