Theatre Review – Pulse Theatre/The Woods Are Dark and Deep by Mladen Obradovic

The Woods Are Dark and Deep is one of those plays whose heart is in the right place, but one that needs work.

Clearly, playwright Mladen Obradovic is passionate about his subject – the little known fact that during World War 1, Canada put 8500 immigrants into 24 internment camps, including whole families, who had passports from the enemy combatants. Given the scope of empires, this included Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Croats, Serbs, Austrians, Hungarians and Turks.

Mostly men, these immigrants were used as a manual labour force, clearing forests and building roads. The creation of many of our national parks can be traced back to these workers. It is important to note that an organization called Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund helped commission this play. As the program cover states: “They came to Canada to find a better life, and ended up sacrificing their freedom”. This incident is certainly a stain on our history and deserves to be better known.

The setting is Spirit Lake Camp in northern Quebec. The main characters are three Serbs. Nebojsa (Mladen Obradovic) had an auto repair shop in Montreal, where Janko (Dewey Stewart) and Dragutin (Jake Zabusky) worked for him. Neb is the most bitter about their internment. Drag tries to make the best of the situation, while Janko is obsessed with the French-Canadian girlfriend Claire (Sophie McIntosh) he had to leave behind. There is also a Ukrainian family that they befriend – Oleksa (Ratko Todorovic), his wife Anya (Biljana Karadzic), and their children Olessya (Mila Jokic) and Oleh (Simeon Kljakic). The final character is one of the camp guards, a soldier called John.

Not a lot happens in the plot, which is more character driven than narrative. The main throughline follows the discussions between the three men and their Ukrainian friends. We learn about their personal stories, and how they came to be in the camp. All this would be fine, except that the acting is very uneven, and the pacing even more ragged. Projection and clarity of diction are also problems. It seems that the best director Sandra Cardinal could come up with was a level of performance that tilted toward amateur. That being said, there are affecting moments where we are drawn into the plight of the characters.

The script needs work. At times the text seems cyclical, and some judicious editing could get rid of a lot of repetition in the dialogue. Obradovic also uses overly conventional methods of storytelling. For example, we find out how Claire is faring because we overhear her prayers. On the other hand, the production values are very good. Meredith Wolting’s forest set and period costumes are excellent, as is Alexandra Caprara’s moody lighting. The use of the cast singing traditional Serbian songs to bridge the scenes is inspired.

In short, the play has an important message, and Obradovic has created some interesting characters. One wonders what a really experienced director could have done with the production.

Pulse Theatre, The Woods Are Dark and Deep by Mladen Obradovic, directed by Sandra Cardinal, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Mar. 21 to 27, 2019.