nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 18, 2007
Mad Forest is only the third full-scale production to be mounted by QED Productions. This young company, whose co-artistic directors are Micah Freedman and Zander Teller, are doing a lot of stuff right. The production values are first-class all the way for an off-off/indie budget; the eleven-member ensemble, which is comprised of Adam Belvo, Tom Cleary, Micah Freedman, Marguerite French, Matthew Gray, Angus Hepburn, Megan Ketch, Christiaan Koop, Elena McGhee, Mick O'Brien, and Andy Waldschmidt, is exemplary; and at least at the performance reviewed, the house was full and the audience was involved and engaged. This is a group to keep an eye on.
About this particular play, however, I am less enthusiastic. It was written quickly by Caryl Churchill in the spring of 1990, right after the Ceausescu regime fell; it depicts events before, during, and after the strange, mostly bloodless coup/revolution that ended totalitarian Communist rule in Romania. The title alludes to the place where Bucharest, Romania's capital, now stands—according to a program note, a large forest that was "impenetrable for the foreigner who did not know the paths." It's apt enough, for Mad Forest seems to me to be mostly about how we can't understand the ways that other people want to live, want to govern themselves (and presumably they can't understand us); by extension, maybe, that all people are fundamentally unknowable and unexplainable.
This is profound enough in it's way, but the play constantly feels as if it wants to be more specific than that, focused as it is on ordinary Romanian life before and after the Ceausescus. But it offers few answers, or even much empathy.
The first and third segments of the play center on two families, one working-class, one more privileged; the daughter of the former is in love with the son of the latter, and the two marry in the final scene. These sections show us, mostly, that life doesn't change very much at all for ordinary people even though the government changes: certain commodities seem to be more available to buy after the coup, but the culture of suspicion and fear only seems to intensify. Classes still struggle against classes; prejudice against Hungarians and gypsies doesn't disappear.
The middle portion of Mad Forest is a narrative of the December 1989 revolution in which the army banded with the rebels against the Ceausescus, overthrew (and killed) the leaders, and installed a new government (the exact nature of which is never explained). This part of the play is structured as a long series of direct-address monologues delivered to the audience by eyewitnesses. It's enormously compelling, especially because it appears that the documentary quality is earned; i.e., these seem to be drawn from actual accounts. The unsettled, nearly surreal atmosphere of revolution is captured perfectly. But 35 or 40 minutes of undiluted narration with virtually no action is pretty determinedly untheatrical: this part of the show is a hard sit.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that director Julia Beardsley O'Brien has elected to place this, the play's second act, right after its first act, with no intermission in between. A break just before would have helped prepare us for the sudden shift in style.
O'Brien has made a few other directorial choices that seem questionable. One is to have each of the numerous vignettes that comprise Acts I and III be introduced by an actor reading the title of the scene in Romanian and English. This probably adds some ten minutes to the running time of the play, for no important reason that I could think of. (These titles could have been projected on the rear wall or, probably, dispensed with entirely.) As rendered here, the progress of the play halts about every five minutes or so.
Similarly, the set's backdrop is made up of three walls of clothes hanging as if in a wardrobe; I constantly wondered what it was supposed to signify.
I left the show unsure if Mad Forest is a good play, or if it's as relevant as O'Brien suggests in her program note. Early scenes, set during the totalitarian period, depicting people waiting on long lines to buy a book or worried that friends would betray them to the government, have a certain cautionary resonance in post-9/11, Bush-Era America. But the final act becomes simultaneously more generalized and more specific in its observations about the characters on stage, and I was ultimately unsure what Churchill wanted me to get out of her work.
Nevertheless, this is in most respects a well-mounted production of a challenging contemporary script, and there can never be too much of that going on in the theatre: kudos to QED for bringing this work to its audience with such craft and intelligence.