Review: The Woods are Dark and Deep (Pulse Theatre)

A story from the dark side of Canada’s past told in a new ensemble-driven historical drama, onstage at Toronto’s Factory Theatre

At a time when our media is flooded with news reports on atrocities, political scandals, and war from our nation’s allies, it is easy to forget that Canada has a grim history of its own. The Woods are Dark and Deep is a reminder of what we must atone for, and how the actions of past generations linger today,

Set during World War I, this new play is based on the seldom-acknowledged internment camps that ran during wartime. Deemed enemies of the state, immigrants from countries Canada was at war against were treated as suspect and interned in labor camps.

This play is not your typical sweeping, melodramatic war drama with battles of good and bad. We are far from the European war front here, following the exploits of four prisoners and their loved ones, with the nation we call home and consider the “good guys” waging a war of a different sort on its own citizens.

Although this production sheds light onto some hard-to-swallow truths, playwright Mladen Obradovic chooses not to brutalize his audience. He instead focuses on the sense of hope and togetherness that helped prisoners endure their harsh living conditions. Like the soldiers on the war’s front lines, the internees are trying to pursue a better life, but what “a better life” means and how to obtain it is up for debate. And debate these men do, ferociously.

We get a clear sense of how each character feels about their current lot in life, some more optimistic than others, and just how strongly they do hold their beliefs, but the heightened emotion on stage steers clear of feeling trite or exaggerated. That said, I found the play’s fight scenes and physical elements lacking at times, and without a stage combat specialist mentioned in the show’s program, I noticed some awkwardness when characters threw each other around or landed punches. It is a matter that can risk the immersion of a performance, as well as making me worried about the safety of the performers, even with how well-practiced and passionate they are.

Passion is certainly this performance’s backbone, though. With a cast and creative team made up largely of artists of Eastern European heritage, the personal pride this team feels in telling their forefather’s story is remarkable. Where this is most evident in the folk songs performed throughout the work. Under the leadership of vocal coach Kristina Bijelic, the music completes this story’s soaring, bittersweet emotional spectrum.

I appreciated the dry wit and jocular tone of this show most of all. More than merely providing comic relief, the use of clever wordplay and staging better illustrated the reality of the situation, such as a scene with overlapping monologues between ingenue Claire (Sophie McIntosh in her Toronto stage debut) writing to her betrothed, interrupted by the camp’s commanding officer (played by Francesco De Francesco) intercepting the letter and censoring segments considered unsavory or offensive.

The script is all-around vastly thoughtful, with a layered take on political power structures, and the sometimes-complicated nature of oppression and its agents. The text has delicious symbolism at play as well, such as using the forest setting to represent the scope of our heroes’ journey, but also uncertainty for what the future holds. Among the men at work is Oleksa (performed with stunning sensitivity by Ratko Todorovic), a gentle giant rendered mute following an accident and representing those rendered voiceless by politics and history.

The Woods are Dark and Deep is the first production I have seen in a long while where I had the chance to take away a valuable lesson. Although this tale goes dark places and even its triumphs are somber, it imparts worthwhile knowledge and leaves us not with shame for past transgressions, but empowerment to do better.

Details:

  • The Woods are Dark and Deep performs at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St) until March 27, 2019.
  • Tickets are available for purchase online at the company’s website
  • Advisory: use of theatrical haze

Photo of Francesco De Francesco and Dewey Stewart by 416 Aki Studio