L-R: Sarah Zinsser, unknown, Lawrence Pressman, Morlan Higgins,
Kaitlin Hopkins, Kurt Deutsch, Marilyn McIntyre, Don McManus &
A "Mad Forest" of Chaos and Hope
photos by Axel Koester
by Laurie Winer
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
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
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
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