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a play from Romania

by Caryl Churchill
directed by Stephanie Shroyer

The play takes place before, during and after the Romanian Revolution, December 1989...

Lisa Akey, Tony Amendola, Raye Birk, Julia Campbell,
Scott Allan Campbell, Nancy Linehan Charles, Kurt Deutsch,
Lynnda Ferguson, Robin Gammell, Gregg Henry,
Dave Higgins, Kaitlin Hopkins, William Dennis Hunt,
Matt MacKenzie, Marilyn McIntyre, Don McManus,
Marian Mercer, George Murdock, Claudette Nevins,
Lawrence Pressman, Raphael Sbarge, Cotter Smith,
Christian Svensson, Joel Swetow, JohnWalcutt,
Time Winters & Sarah Zinsser

- WINNER, 1996 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award:
Ensemble Performance

Set Designers - Deborah Raymond & Doran Vernacchio
Lighting Designer - J. Kent Inasy
Costume Designer - Cara Varnell
Production Stage Manager - Deena Mullen
Prop Master - Chuck Olsen
Casting by - Marilyn Mandel
Fight Director - Steve Rankin
Stage Manager - Susan Diamond

L-R: Lawrence Pressman, Kaitlin Hopkins, Kurt Deutch & more

L-R: Cotter Smith & Lawrence Pressman


L.A. Times

L-R: Sarah Zinsser, unknown, Lawrence Pressman, Morlan Higgins, Marian Mercer,
Kaitlin Hopkins, Kurt Deutsch, Marilyn McIntyre, Don McManus & George Murdock

A "Mad Forest" of Chaos and Hope
by Laurie Winer
photos by Axel Koester

In 1990, British playwright Caryl Churchill traveled to Romania with a director and a troupe of actors to find material for a play about the everyday lives of people both before and after the execution of tyrants Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in December 1989. "Mad Forest" is the result of that trip. As staged at the Matrix Theatre, the play delivers the tumult of that time into the audience's personal space in a production that literally encircles the spectators and thrusts them into a panorama of hope, fear and paranoia.

The theater has been gutted and reconfigured for the play. Seated on two sets of facing benches, the audience twists and turns to follow the action, which plays out in every corner of the room as well as on the cobblestoned stage in the middle. The surreal and chaotic nature of life under Ceausescu is echoed in the very fabric of "Mad Forest," a play in which actors go quickly from role to role, playing humans, animals, angels and children, and where scenes are but slices of life—people piling into a trolley, waiting for bread, speaking in code in their own homes in case they are being "overheard."

Each scene is announced in English and Romanian by a simple travel book phrase, such as "Who Has a Match?" or "We Are Buying Meat." The play intentionally avoids a shapely arc; it meanders through vignettes of Romanian life, some fascinating, some less so, most of them realistic, some of them comically supernatural. Nothing is over-explained and it is up to the audience to gather up the fragments and make something of them.

Marian Mercer, Kaitlin Hopkins, George Murdock,
Sarah Zinsser & Gregg Henry

"Mad Forest" provides insight into how people find ways to trust one another in an atmosphere of almost total paranoia, or how a common enemy binds people together. You may not feel, however, that you've had a coherent experience, although bits of brilliance will glance off you and fly off to some other realm where you can't follow.

Director Stephanie Shroyer delivers those glancing blows with authority. With the help of a solid cast, she finds meaning in Churchill's willful mysteriousness, rhythm in her elliptical universe. Her work is particularly good in the play's strongest section—Act 1, which portrays life before the revolution.

In the first scene, an older couple (George Murdock, Marian Mercer) turn up the radio and whisper furiously. The conditions under which they fight tell us more about them than their inaudible argument possibly could. Their daughter Lucia (Sarah Zinsser) brings home four precious eggs and some cigarettes, no doubt unlawfully gotten. As the family celebrates its good fortune with silent, joyful smoking, the father gets up and smashes his egg on the floor. Another daughter, Fiorina (Kaitlin Hopkins), tries to save what's left by scraping the tiny glop into a bowl.

The economy and observation in this silent vignette are what makes Churchill such a great dramatist. Yet her full power is felt only sporadically in this play. The play's second act, in which the characters relate where they were and what they saw during the capture and execution of the Ceausescus, is tedious. And the final act, which describes the paranoia and confusion that linger after the dictator is gone, often seems as wayward as the country itself, trying desperately and blindly to repair.

As is usual at the Matrix, the play is double-cast, so that the actors change nightly. Standouts in the cast I saw: Cotter Smith, lack luster as a glum architect, is riveting when he steps into the role of an abject dog who begs a vampire to adopt him on the dark R&manian street. Zinsser is vivid as the wilder of the two sisters, who goes briefly to America and finds that "someone has shined every carrot," and Hopkins shows porcelain strength as the more cautious and selfless sister.

As the schoolteacher Flavia, Marilyn Mclntrye was beautifully wry and controlled as she taught her class about "the great personality of Nicolae Ceausescu." George Murdock played with conviction both the aging, egg-breaking father in the first scene and an hyperactive 8-year-old orphan in the third.

The handsome, dark production is designed by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio and by lighting designer J. Kent Inasy. One has to credit the director for the fact that the entire cast begins to look Slavic after a while.

In the "new" Romania, a couple once separated by politics is now free to marry. A brawl (staged by fight director Steve Rankin) breaks out during the wedding celebration and someone is heard to insult a Hungarian guest. The only truth that emerges from the confusion and overlapping dialogue is that new scapegoats must be found when the leader that united a country in hatred is gone. In her elliptically brilliant way, Churchill shows us there is no clear path out of a mad forest.

The Hollywood Reporter

by Ed Kaufman

Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest" (subtitled "A play from Romania") is stunning and absorbing theater. Based on the Christmas 1989 Romanian demonstrations against (and eventual overthrow of) the regime of communist dictator Ceausescu, it brilliantly tells the ironic, savage and sometimes even hopeful story of the human spirit that is trapped within an oppressive government and must endure — even though one regime falls, the next somehow seems just as bad.

One is reminded of Shakespeare's history plays, where the personal is blended with the political. Only the Bard always had a political solution to things; "Mad Forest'' concludes with a crazed celebration where wedding guests, an angel and a 500-year old vampire are all dancing together. Such is the Romanian spirit full of ambiguities, contradictions and paranoia, haunted by visions of the past and a distrust of the present. Yet still with a will to change.

Set designers Deborah Raymond and Doran Vernacchio have completely changed the playing space and look of the Matrix to capture the essence of 1989 Budapest. Instead of the traditional seating, there's temporary bench seating, with a series of ramps and walkways that encircle the audience.

Credit director Stephanie Shroyer with the almost monumental task of keeping everything moving; Cara Varnell for the authentic costumes; J. Kent Inasy for the moody lighting; and Ruth Judkowitz for the sound. Amazingly, all of it comes together.

As a result, upon entering we become part of the "Budapest world" of fear and paranoia.

We are forced to bear witness as the story of two Romanian families, laborers and intellectuals, is told simultaneously from a number of different locations. Writer Churchill, as in "Cloud Nine," uses time and space within the more flexible confines of poetry, rather than as strict reality. We are given the freedom to move fluidly as the story of the Vladus and the Antonescus unfolds against Christmas in Budapest of 1989.

All of the segments are introduced by cast members speaking a Romanian phrase, much like a phrase from a Berlitz guide book.

As usual, producer Joseph Stern has double-cast "Mad Forest" for its entire run at the Matrix. Opening night's ensemble of 11, who play 40 different roles, is talented, stage savvy and absolutely flawless.



by Charles Isherwood

The ambition of Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest" is extraordinary: to explore the ramifications of the fall of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu on the people who suffered under his rule. Churchill focuses most closely on a pair of families eventually united in marriage, but her play's aim is much larger — she wants to weave the experience of an entire country's populace into the fabric of the play, and she is more or less successful in doing so, despite the sometimes inevitable diffuseness such large aims entail.

Eleven actors play 40 characters in the course of the play (and, as always at the Matrix Theater Co., each part is double-cast). The sisters Lucia (Lynnda Ferguson) and Fiorina (Julia Campbell) Vladu are at the heart of the primary story. Lucia's impending marriage to an American has brought the iron fist of Communist disapproval down on the whole family. Mother Irina (Claudette Nevins), a bus driver, is transferred to a less desirable route; father Bodgan (George Murdock) is approached by an apparatchik who suggests that he turn informant to redeem the family. And Fiorina's marriage to Radu (Raphael Sbarge) is forbidden by his parents.

In short scenes unfolding in several playing areas before and around the audience, which sits on benches in intimate proximity to the actors, life under the stifling shadow of communism is tellingly etched. On the mud-brown cobblestone and brick set by Deborah Raymond and Doran Vernacchio, enclosing both audience and performers, a priest wrestles grimly with his shame at subsuming the dictates of his religion to the politics of the day; people in comically mismatched winter clothing huddle while waiting for meat rations; jokes against the regime are told with one eye on the door.

And then, with a suddenness beautifully evoked in the first act's climax, everything changes. A chorus of characters — a hospital nurse, a secret police member, a bulldozer driver, a flower seller breathlessly relate the events of Dec. 21, 1989, when the unthinkable act that all had been thinking of for years came to pass: The people rose up against Ceausescu and brought down the regime.

When the jubilance of that upheaval is over, the Romanians are faced with a world where the hard certainties of communism leave a void too easily filled with pessimism and regret. Tn a lovely scene, the Vladu family lounges at a picnic, looking up at the sky and voicing their hopes for the future. Under the old regime, they wouldn't have dared such dreams; now that they can, they have to contend with the deeper sadness of seeing them unfulfilled.

With a play constructed of dozens of short vignettes, it's easy to lose focus, and the play's complexities sometimes strain audience interest.

And the few fantastic scenes, as when an angel colloquies with a priest, and a vampire and dog chat about their lonely existences, aren't sufficiently illuminating to justify their inclusion in an otherwise very worldly play.

There isn't a false note in any of the performances, but it's the ensemble work that stands out here more than any individual performers. The final scene, Fiorina's wedding, shows off Stephanie Shroycr's vivid directorial hand at its best: In an increasingly unruly dance of recrimination and reunion, with several heated conversations going on at once, we watch as the Vladu and Antonescu families are united in marriage amid a confusion of angry confrontations about the past, present and future. It's a comic, appropriately cacophonous end to a play that reverberates with the profound messiness of human history.

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