The dust from the Romanian revolution of late 1989 had barely settled when Caryl Churchill descended on Bucharest with a herd of theater students, looking for the makings of drama amid the aftermath of cultural upheaval. Boy, did she ever find it.
Churchill, the English postmodernist playwright responsible for the acclaimed Cloud Nine, is fascinated with the strange magic of language and the visceral power of bravura theatrics, and Mad Forest, the kaleidoscopic allegory she conjured out of Romania’s political agonies, is too wrapped up in these twin passions to be entirely lucid. But then, as the play demonstrates, the legacy of the bloody revolt that toppled the regime of Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu isn’t exactly crystal clear, either.
At first, the narrative moves forward in relatively conventional fashion. Two very different families, linked Romeo-and-Juliet-style by a pair of young lovers, grapple with the realities of life under Ceaucescu. The impetuous younger daughter of the blue-collar Vladu clan intends to marry an American, but her plans provoke the displeasure of the hated Securitate, whose agents use her “anti-patriotic” affections to pressure her father and brother to inform on their co-workers. The more affluent Antonescus, whose artist son, Radu, loves the Vladus’ elder daughter, are merely forced to compromise their professional judgments, their politics, and their intellectual freedom. Flavia, a teacher who knows better, instructs her students in the glorious history of the Ceaucescu regime, while Mihai, an architect, adapts his designs to suit the whims of government functionaries. The frequent silences that permeate these early scenes are as brutal as the shouted slogans that erupt later; there is no fear like the fear that dogs a people who must speak guardedly in their own homes. As the separate stories of the Vladus and the Antonescus unfold, their neighbors—standing in line at the butcher, waiting impatiently at the crowded trolley stop—mutter sedition under their breath, nurturing their resentments like hothouse flowers. The Vladus are waiting for their daughter’s wedding, but the people are waiting, consciously or no, for the spark that will ignite the conflagration.
In Act 2, the performers take on new identities (a soldier, a house painter, a construction worker, a member of the Securitate) and sit in a double row of chairs close to the audience, remembering what they did or heard “on the Twenty-One” and immediately after—what they saw, or didn’t see, at the revolution that began on Dec. 21, 1989. Strangely, Mad Forest bogs down here, where it ought to be most harrowing: Description tails into grim description and anecdote piles upon anecdote until you’re thinking it’s surely time for someone to wrap up with the story of the Ceaucescus’ execution. It may be that Churchill needs to trim a little in this section—or, since a critic friend said the monologues in the New York production were just as powerful as the rest of the play, it may just be a question of the way the Studio actors are delivering their lines.
Act 2 flatness notwithstanding, Churchill generally plays with dramatic structure as deftly as she plays with words. It’s not especially surprising, then, that in Act 3 Mad Forest turns briefly from its focus on the Vladus and the Antonescus to follow a conversation between a world-weary vampire and a pitifully effusive stray hound who’s more than willing to submit to the kiss of death—so long as it will keep loneliness and fear at bay. Elsewhere in the play, angels put in appearances as the playwright considers the causes and effects of revolution, and a ghost helps Flavia distinguish the difference between vague, unchampioned hopes for a better future and mere conformist denial of present reality. The bloodshed in Timosoara and Bucharest, Churchill seems to be saying, had roots and ramifications in things far deeper, far older, and far more elemental than mere politics.
Perhaps the most remarkable measure of Churchill’s prowess is that Mad Forest’s chief theatrical device never grows wearying. Except in Act 2, each vignette in the elliptical, episodic script is introduced Berlitz-style, with an electronic beep and a recorded phrase in Romanian. From wherever they happen to be (which is frequently in rows of chairs at the far end of the space), the performers respond in unison with the English translation:
“We are buying meat.” “I am visiting my granddaughter.” “What’s the time?” Inevitably, each of the brief scenes—slices of pre- and post-revolutionary life, really—that make up the first and third acts of Mad Forest is pegged to its prefatory phrase. If Churchill’s command of the pulse and arc of a scene were one whit less sure, the repetitive beep and the regular incantatory banalities could easily become a grating measure of the evening’s pace. Instead, you’ll find yourself trying to anticipate the developments that link plot to triviality.
The Studio production’s design, by Marianne Meadows and Giorgos Tsappas, consciously exploits the vaguely apocalyptic feel of the performance space—a gutted warehouse in one of downtown’s less rehabilitated areas, which Studio is using while its 14th Street home is renovated—and Serge Seiden’s energetic direction does much to capture the euphoria and the paranoia of post-Ceaucescu Romania. Seiden’s talented ensemble cast works like a well-oiled Western machine; Waleed Zuaiter, Mary Battiata, and Andrew Price are among the standouts.
Mad Forest, for all its cleverness and perceptiveness, doesn’t offer easy conclusions, and you’ll be forgiven if, on your way out of the theater, you’re still puzzled about who’s related to whom among the Vladus and the Antonescus. If you’ve paid attention at all you’ll certainly find yourself wondering how much the revolution accomplished; with the unifying threat of the Ceaucescus gone, the inhabitants of Churchill’s Romania quickly fall to bickering, indulging themselves again in old prejudices and long-held grievances. But if you don’t emerge from this Mad Forest with a renewed sense of hope—and a wry sense of how often we trample our most noble hopes in the dust of our petty differences—you’re not human.CP