Three months after the 1989 fall of the Ceausescus, a theatrical brigade including the British playwright Caryl Churchill, a director named Mark Wing-Davey and 10 of Mr. Wing-Davey’s acting students went to Romania on what promised to be a preposterous mission. Their aim was to become instant experts on a nation in post-revolutionary turmoil and to make a play about what they had seen. Their visit was scarcely longer than a week.
Can you picture the results already? The acting students, being by definition romantics, would create a let-a-thousand-flowers bloom pageant. Miss Churchill, being an archetypal Royal Court Theater ideologue of her day, would insist on equating Ilena Ceausescu with Margaret Thatcher.
Or so one might reasonably imagine. But real artists – not to be confused with the cultural camp followers who have turned Prague into a chic tourist spot – are unpredictable. There is nothing kneejerk about “Mad Forest,” as Miss Churchill named her play, and it turns out to be just as surprising, inventive and disturbing as the author’s “Top Girls” and “Fen.” In its American premiere under the aegis of the New York Theater Workshop, a full 18 months after the London opening, the piece has not dated in the way that newspaper accounts of the same history already have. If anything, this “play from Romania,” as it is subtitled, seems to seep beyond its specific events and setting to illuminate a broader nightmare of social collapse, especially in the insinuating production Mr. Wing-Davey has fashioned at the Perry Street Theater with a crack American cast.
“Mad Forest” can penetrate beneath the surface of its well-chronicled story precisely because it is not journalism. Only in the second (and least successful) of the three acts, a Living Newspaper in which the company temporarily simulates Romanian accents to recite an anecdotal oral history of the tumultuous week after the massacre of demonstrators at Timosoara, does the play purport to traffic in documentary reality. The rest of “Mad Forest” forgets about the facts, which remain murky anyway in Romania, and exerts a theatrical imagination to capture the truth about people who remain in place no matter what regimes come and go.
Miss Churchill achieves this by devoting her first and third acts to an examination of two Bucharest families, one of laborers and one of intellectuals, before and after the revolution. But if the two families give the evening a focus and a story of sorts – the households are to be linked by marriage – the technique of “Mad Forest” is elliptical and atmospheric, often in the manner of Eastern European fiction of the Kundera and Havel era. In Act I, the double lives of people trapped in a totalitarian state are dramatized by gesture and image – the mute, dour figures waiting hopelessly in a meat queue, for instance – rather than by the dialogue, which is often oblique or insincere, lest the dread secret police, the Securitate, be eavesdropping. In Act III, the liberated Romanians do little but talk, but they often talk over each other, screaming and arguing in paroxysms of xenophobia and paranoia that sometimes seem even more frightening than the sullen episodes of repression that precede them.
As is the playwright’s style, some vignettes are meanly funny. A young woman (Calista Flockhart) seeking an abortion in Act I is told by a doctor (Joseph Siravo) that “there is no abortion in Romania” even as he pockets the bribe that will secure his illicit services. A teacher (Mary Shultz) who lauds the Ceausescus in her classroom at the play’s outset is wondering by Act III what strings can be pulled to keep her job in a new, upended Romania where “we don’t know who we know.” A rebellious art student (Jake Weber) turns on his parents for collaborating with the discredited dictatorship even as he finds the sloganeering of the new, Iliescu Government chillingly interchangeable with that of the old.
But such conventional political satire is eventually overwhelmed by a more surreal form of theater. A nasty madman (Rob Campbell) roams through a hospital, challenging the official version of the December events by incanting such unanswered questions as, “Did we have a revolution or a putsch?” and, “Were the Securitate disguised in army uniforms?” Mythological figures enter the action, among them an archangel who seemingly collaborated with the genocidal Iron Guard of the 1930’s and an elegant Transylvanian vampire drawn by the smell of blood. As the phantasmagoric sequences thicken and grow more grotesque, Miss Churchill gives poetic voice to the new crisis of a society in which the old totalitarian order has splintered into a no less malignant disorder. Abruptly the new democrats look suspiciously like the old fascists and a hunt for class and racial enemies becomes the pathological preoccupation of people who remain hungry and enraged.
By using a small cast to populate this large canvas, Miss Churchill once again provides exceptional opportunities for actors to play multiple roles. What Mr. Wing-Davey achieves with his familiar but often unsung New York ensemble evokes memories of Tommy Tune’s achievement with the American cast of Miss Churchill’s “Cloud 9” a decade ago. Everyone in “Mad Forest” is excellent, starting with Ms. Flockhart and Mr. Weber, though the showiest role-switching stunts belong to Lanny Flaherty (who plays both a proletarian lout and a tweedy translator), Randy Danson (representing several classes of Romanian womanhood), Mr. Siravo (as a variety of bloodsuckers) and Christopher McCann (doubling as an effete architect and a mangy street dog).
As designed by Marina Draghici (sets) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting), who turn a small stage into an ever-changing Chinese box of oppressively angled walls and shadowy, Kafkaesque cul-de-sacs, the evening’s physical production also plays a major role. The staging often conjures up tableaux as evocative as the play’s title, which refers to the dense forest that once stood where Bucharest is now and was, as a program note says, “impenetrable for the foreigner who did not know the paths.”
Miss Churchill does not pretend to know those paths, either – each scene is pointedly introduced by a banal sentence read from a tourist’s Romanian phrasebook – but she does see the forest for the trees. Nowhere is this clearer than in the play’s wedding finale, where every element of the production whirls together in an explosively choreographed panorama of drunken revelry and sadistic, retributive violence. Few lines can be heard over the ensuing pandemonium – “This country needs a strong man” is one – and the chaos that engulfs the small theater is terrifying. Surely I was not the only American in the audience who found the climax of “Mad Forest,” with its vision of an economically and racially inflamed populace on a rampage for scapegoats, a little too close to home. – Frank Rich New York Times
Cast & Crew
|Angel/ Toma/Soldier||Rob Campbell|
|Bogdan/ Translator||Lanny Flaherty|
|Flavia/ Rodica/ Grandmother/ Housepainter||Mary Shultz|
|Florina/ Girl Student||Mary Mara|
|Gabriel||Tim Blake Nelson|
|Ianos/ Painter||Garrett Dillahunt|
|Irina/ Grandmother/ Flowerseller||Randy Danson|
|Lucia/ Student Doctor||Calista Flockhart|
|Mihai/ Wayne/ Dog/ Translator||Chris McCann|
|Vampire/ Grandfather/ Old Aunt/ Securitate Man||Joe Siravo
(26th November 1991 – 1992)
|Vampire/ Grandfather/ Old Aunt/ Securitate Man||Rocco Sisto
(September – November 1992)
|Assistant Director||Beth Schachter|
|Lighting Designer||Chris Akerlind|
|Sound Designer||Mark Bennett|
|Stage Manager||Thom Widmann|
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