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The eggs are precious. Ditto the cigarettes. So when Lucia Vladu brings them home to her Romanian family in the opening moments of Caryl Churchill’s fall-of-totalitarianism drama, Mad Forest, she knows she will be rapturously received.
The reactions of her mother and sister do not disappointwordless gasps of astonishment as eggs are gently transferred from their hiding places in coat pockets to the safety of a bowl, a frantic brandishing of lighters at the sight of the red-and-white Marlboro pack, then deep drags, inhaled greedily, exhaled luxuriously.
Her father’s reaction is chillier. Lucia’s romance with a visiting American is responsible for this bounty, but her liaison has also brought hardship on this clan. With government authorities discouraging contact with the West and encouraging neighbors to inform on neighbors, whispered family conferences like the one Lucia has just interrupted must now take place around a blaring radio so that overheard remarks won’t be reported to Securitate agents.
Every family member is under suspicion at work, and even on the street. Lucia’s sister has seen her own romance crumble because her boyfriend’s family fears being linked to the troubled Vladu household. The pressures are ferocious. And when the family patriarch picks an egg from the bowl, examines it for a long, wordless moment, and then crushes it in his fist, splattering its golden yolk across 10 feet of flooring, they’re made starkly visual.
All the most effective moments in Cheryl Faraone’s staging are like thatdramatic explosions occasioned by a pressure-cooker environment in which fear, politics, and a nation’s historic rush to judgment combine to give urgency to the most commonplace events. Oddly, the least effective moments are nearly identicalequally urgent, but unfocused and vague, as if the events that so confuse and distress the characters are equally confusing and distressing to the shapers of their theatrical form.
The script is more social document than drama, fabricated by Churchill from interviews conducted in Bucharest in the first months after the fall of Ceausescu’s Communist government. The author channels social currents through two familiesthe Vladu clan, powerless and ostracized under the Communist government because of Lucia’s foreign liaison but well-adapted to survival later; and the better-connected Antonescu clan, whose loyalty to the government will prove problematic after its fall. The fates of the two families are intertwined because the youngest Antonescua strapping young artist named Radu (Andrew W. Smith)plans to marry Lucia’s sister.
Social turmoil intervenes, however. For the conclusion of the first act, the playwright has constructed, from eyewitness accounts, a vivid montage of what became a rising chorus of national rebellion: Scattered booing at a Ceausescu speech, then mass demonstrations, then the Army’s refusal to fire on demonstrators, and finally the capture and execution of Ceausescu and his wife.
If Mad Forest were mere agitprop, the evening could end there. But for Churchill, all the most interesting dilemmas facing her two families arise from the aftermath of the December 1989 demonstrations. And her Act 2 piles them on: the nervousness of a populace abruptly left rudderless after years of being steered with a strong hand, the confusion that follows a social breakdown, the conspiracy theories that try to make sense of events that can’t be neatly accounted for, the ethnic hatreds that resurface undimmed after years of sublimation.
The conflicts are often expressed through personal relationships (as when a wedding reception turns into a slugfest, with family tensions surfacing precisely as social tensions have), but sometimes, they’re just brushed in in fantasy sequences. One particularly vivid example of this latter authorial tactic involves a conversation between a sexy vampire (Lee Mikeska Gardner, resplendent in black satin with crimson shoes, nail polish, and lipstick) and a starving, abandoned dog (Paul Takacs, naked and fawning on hands and knees) about the habit-forming nature of slaughter.
When the mix works, it can be pretty riveting. When it doesn’t, alas, it’s just baffling, which means Faraone hasn’t been as clear as she might have been about delineating relationships. Partly her problem stems from cast size. Potomac Theatre Project is a scrappy, committed company, but its resources aren’t limitless. Its founders decided back in 1990 that their mission of producing fiercely political theater would be compromised by charging admission, and they haven’t asked customers to pay for tickets ever since, preferring to rely on donations.
But that means the fielding of a professional cast of 32 is a bit beyond PTP’s financial capabilities. So Faraone has 13 actors doubling and tripling in 32 roles, and while they’re all capable, it’s easy to lose track of who’s playing whom at any given moment. Gardner, for instance, doesn’t just vamp that dog; she also plays a quirky Vladu grandmother, a haunted Antonescu mother, and an exhausted doctor at the hospital where both families gather to tend their wounded. Christopher Lane, meanwhile, plays the egg-crushing patriarch of the Vladu clan, as well as his own father, a ghost, and a working stiff with doubts about the revolution.
Both performers are adept at using accents, postures, and bits of costuming to distinguish their characters, as are nearly all their compatriots, but at some point, your mind just rebels at the task of keeping things straight. Mine did, anyway. I don’t recall having this problem when Studio Theater staged Mad Forest in 1996, but my recollection is that that production was considerably more densely populated.
In any event, when the episodic script gives the performers a chance to play an extended scene, everything comes together with an almost audible snap. And if you happen to have caught the other play in PTP’s rotating repertoryGood, C.P. Taylor’s rumination on how Nazi totalitarianism might have affected the thought processes of an essentially decent manyou’ll hear other snaps, too. The concerns of the two plays dovetail neatly, though their authorial methods are diametrically opposed. Sparely staged in the Olney Theatre’s scene shop, a black-box space PTP appropriates every summer with increasing confidence, they refract and amplify each other in precisely the way politically attuned audiences have come to expect PTP productions will. And for free, yet.CP
In conjunction with the runs of Good, Mad Forest, and Camille (which opens next week on Olney’s Mainstage), Potomac Theatre Project’s founders Cheryl Faraone, Richard Romagnoli, and Jim Petosa will host a series of audience forums designed to provoke discussion of the political topics raised by the three plays. All events are free, as are performances of Good and Mad Forest.
Wednesday, Aug. 26 “Political Theater in the ’90s: Spin or Substance?” 10 p.m., panel discussion following the performance of Good.
Saturday, Aug. 29 “How to Start, Build, and Maintain a Small Nonprofit Theater,” 10:30 a.m., panel discussion.
Saturday, Aug. 29 “What Should We Expect of Today’s Theater: Intellectual Diversion or the Release of Primeval Emotions?” 5 p.m, panel discussion following the matinee performance of Mad Forest.
Saturday, Sept. 5 “From Lysistrata to The Crucible: Fighting Back Onstage!” Maryland high school theater students present scenes and monologues, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., before and after the matinee performance of Good.
Thursday, Sept. 10 “Women Making It in a Man’s World,” 10:30 p.m., panel discussion following the performance of Camille. CP