Revolution. The word is brimming with power, strength, and a sensationalist quality of seduction. America tends to salivate over a good old tale of revolution, sometimes getting so hungry for the next that it neglects to reflect and fully grasp previous movements which have given the world its shape. Perhaps my history classes were too rudimentary, or perhaps I was busy devouring theatre and other literature to give the Romanian Revolution the good, hard look it deserved, but after the Forum Theatre’s wholly striking production of Mad Forest by Caryl Churchill, I’m compelled to learn more. In fact, director Michael Dove’s beautifully human and fearlessly directed piece may compel enough to be seen a second time.
In December of 1989, the people of Communist- controlled Romania had had enough. After a series of violent protests and deadly riots, Romanian Communist Party Leader Nicolae Ceau?escu’s regime was overthrown, and Ceau?escu executed following a public spectacle of a court hearing. Once the immediate dust had settled, playwright Caryl Churchill and a number of students from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama traveled to Bucharest to research the event. Through interactions with Romanian students, families, and witnesses to the revolution, Mad Forest was born.
Mad Forest is a gripping, wide-lensed account of life before, during, and after the Romanian Revolution told from the perspective of citizens young and old, wealthy and working-class, Romanian, Hungarian, animal, spiritual, and even soulless.
The production’s narrative is anchored by the Vladu family, whose patriarch Bogdan (Matt Dougherty) and matriarch Irinia (Charlotte Akin) are struggling to keep their family functional in a society where public spaces are bugged and seemingly private moments always witnessed by Big Brother. Daughter Lucia (Dana Levanovsky) has married for an American passport, despite being in love with the Hungarian student Ianos and son Gabriel (Joe Brack) has sacrificed his health for the Revolution. Their sister, Florina, (Stephanie Rosewell) watches the chaos unfold, working as a nurse in a local hospital, and is involved with the upper class student Radu, (Alexander Strain) at odds with sweeping and uncertain changes, and the ideals of his parents (Jim Jorgensen and Rose McConnell).
The ensemble is completed by David Winkler and Ashley Ivey (who gives a number of stand-out performances as varying characters throughout the show).
The piece, though, also extends its focus outside these two families, and spends a great deal of the first act examining average Romanians who were witnesses to and participants of the Revolution. These accounts of every-day-life before and after the Revolution, set up in a round house Q&A fashion, create an unsettlingly intimate experience which leaves a deep impression by intermission. “Painting is not about describing,” remarks Joe Brack as a young artist affected by the violence of the riots. “It is a state of spirit. I do not paint for a long time.”
Churchill’s relationship with the mysteries and complexities of Romania are woven throughout Mad Forest. Prior to each scene, various phrases are read in badly-spoken Romanian and translated into English, much like an outsider attempting to understand the Romanian culture. Though the actors speak without accents through the majority of the play, the Q&A portion of the production is performed with thick Romanian accents (much like the way the events were related to the foreign press at the time). Bucharest, where much of the Revolution occurred, was once considered an area of impenetrable wilderness to those unfamiliar with the area. As the piece’s final minutes conclude, spoken in strict Romanian, Churchill seems to be nodding to the true spirit of Romania, which will always appear to outsiders like Teleorman, a thickly wooded county in Romania, which roughly translates as crazy (or mad) forest.
To make such a multi-layered piece and complicated subject matter appear so effortless is a testament to the creative team behind it. Natsu Onoda Power’s subtle but gripping scenic design, paired with Paul Frydrychowski’s lighting choices, beautifully transform the space, and Frank Labovitz’s costumes well represent the era.
The piece, though, does more than present a time and place. Director Dove’s intention is to “explore those still-mysterious events of 1989 as a way of looking at the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’ movements of 2011 in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other nations.” Dan Istrate, local actor and witness to the Revolution as a young man, worked with the actors and production team on a number of levels, and also served as the choreographer and language consultant (Tim Treanor’s interview with Istrate can be found here). Forum’s Web site also includes information audience members may be interested in reading prior to viewing the show.
Mad Forest also surprises, venturing into slightly surrealist territory, incorporating interactions with ghosts, animals, vampires, and, most mesmerizing, a dream sequence in which Veronika Vorel’s sound design truly shines. The talent packed into Mad Forest is, at times, astonishing. Not only is Churchill’s elegant prose done justice, but the production is filled with the rare force that makes Mad Forest feel like a living, breathing entity. There is as much truth in the piece’s words as there are in its silences. And though the show runs on the long side, its roller coaster of a finale is worth the wait, concluding a show as diverse, driven, and inspired as the Revolution which it recounts.
Directed by Michael Dove
Produced by Forum Theatre
Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh
Running Time: Two hours and forty five minutes including one fifteen minute intermission