Review: Crow’s Theatre’s ‘Bad Roads’ is a gut-churning, essential experience

Extraordinary cast transports audience to wartime Ukraine

What: Bad Roads
Where: Crow’s Theatre’s Studio Theatre, 345 Carlaw Ave.
When: Now, until Sun., Nov. 26
Highlight: Airtight cast explores emotional inner workings of war with grounding and sincerity
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: An urgent and timely anatomy of how war tears through the everyday person.

AS YOU STEP INTO Crow’s Studio Theatre, you are immediately transported through time and space into the here and now of the war in Ukraine. To get to your seat, you walk through the stage and the black mulch along the floor. There is an acidic smell of earth in the room.

In its North American premiere, Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s instant classic is a surgically precise exploration of how war amplifies and warps human behaviour, particularly concerning love and loss. Deeply rooted in the reality of Ukraine, this six-episode ensemble piece is based on actual testimonials, making it even more haunting than if born from a writer’s imagination. Every one of the distinct six episodes — spanning from a school principal being caught at a checkpoint with no passport to three teenagers waiting for their military boyfriends — is engrossing. Even in its episodic nature, the piece culminates into an equally ominous and cathartic punch.

Though Bad Roads is a seemingly daunting task at 1 hour and 55 minutes with no intermission, don’t be alarmed — you’re in expert hands with award-winning director Andrew Kushnir. Staged skillfully on a traverse stage, the audience is drawn into the show. Every beat is raw and urgent. The thing that stands out the most about Kushnir’s direction is the powerful images he creates with his deceptively simple staging. A particularly striking image lies in the first episode, in which a woman (Michelle Monteith) speaks directly to the audience as if we were her military lover. There is a tight spotlight in the middle of the stage as she speaks, untouched until she describes their first kiss, and she basks underneath the glow of the light on the dark stage.

The cast is extraordinary. Every actor on stage explores the emotional inner workings of war with grounding and sincerity. They give themselves completely to the complicated emotions of war, and the audience does too. This is especially unveiled in the nauseating, Sarah Kane-esque torture episode. A man (Andrew Chown) psychopathically assaults a reporter (Katherine Gauthier) in the worst ways imaginable, and it is pulled off without the actors even touching. It is such a feat to be able to communicate real-life abject horror in a way that isn’t exploitative but is still impactful. Bravo to the director, actors and Anita Nittoly, the intimacy/fight director.

The lighting by Christian Horoszczak often falls into contrasting tones of blue and yellow, urging the audience not to forget where these events take place. Each scene is played with a complete and total awareness of where they are: this piece is distinctly and powerfully Ukrainian. Bad Roads haunts you with what is shown on stage but, more urgently, with what is not. We get a glimpse into how these particular lives are warped, but it feels very much like one small puzzle piece of a growing and malignant tumour that is real-life war. While this is a story that is Ukrainian, there is no way to watch this piece today without thinking about the other places in the world facing similar horrors. The privilege of being able to hear this story rather than experience it is something not lost to the audience; this is a desperately needed play.