Editors' pick

Mad Forest

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Editorial Review

‘Forest’ full of political paranoia

By Celia Wren
Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011

Big Brother is watching - or, at least, Nicolae Ceausescu is. The stony gaze of Romania's long-reigning communist dictator can be felt in Forum Theatre's smart, absorbing production of Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest."

Director Michael Dove has shrewdly given an in-the-round staging to this 1990 work about the Romanian revolution, planting Churchill's politically aware and sometimes phantasmagorical scenes in what appears to be an Eastern European square. Silver busts of Ceausescu, mounted on silver pedestals, stand around the square's perimeter (amid audience seating), creating a look of gloomy Stalinist-style pomp - and, more important, a paranoid vibe. In this exposed, encircled environment, there is no privacy: Anything may be seen or overheard.

The effective setting (Natsu Onoda Power is scenic designer) gives a head start to Dove's artful and spirited interpretation of "Mad Forest," a play that resulted from a trip Churchill and a few other thespians took to Romania in March 1990, just months after the Ceausescu regime had been toppled and the dictator executed. Twenty-one years later, "Mad Forest's" allusions to a popular revolt gaining momentum amid confusion obviously resonate with the ongoing Arab Spring. With accounts of occupied plazas and fitful military skirmishes, the series of I-saw-the-revolution monologues at the heart of the play recalls recent news coverage of Egypt, for instance.

But while conveying a vivid historical vision, Forum's "Mad Forest" also manages to conjure up full-blooded personalities. The characters, most of whom interact in two politically fraught love stories, represent different relationships to the Ceausescu state. The working-class Vladu family, headed by electrician Bogdan (Matt Dougherty), suffers governmental persecution after daughter Lucia (Dana Levanovsky) gets engaged to an American. By contrast, the Antonescu clan, headed by architect Mihai (Jim Jorgensen), who toes the party line, live in privilege - though that would change if authorities knew the dissident impulses of son Radu (Alexander Strain), an art student who loves Florina Vladu (Stephanie Roswell), Lucia's sister.

Dove and his actors, who range from solid to terrific, deftly expose the tensions roiling the two households - represented by a picnic table in the middle of the stage (a bedraggled beige-ish tablecloth makes it the Vladus' home; a crimson one, topped by a silver candlestick, the Antonescus'). In an early scene, Strain's compellingly stubborn, rebellious Radu scrawls fiercely in a notebook, signaling his inner fury, as he chitchats with dad.

In an even more trenchant sequence, Bogdan - imbued with despairing stoniness by a wonderful Dougherty - turns up the volume on a radio to keep eavesdropping security forces from hearing his fierce conversation with his wife (Charlotte Akin). We can't hear the conversation, but facial expressions and body language convey all that we need to know. (Veronika Vorel's sound design, with its stentorian radio anthems and evocative match-striking sounds is also richly meaningful.)

Levanovsky imbues her character with the right sultry egotism - a quality that emerges particularly when Lucia flounces about irreverently in her wedding dress, a cigarette dangling from her almost sneering lips. Roswell is equally persuasive, her face and posture suggesting the disappointment and weariness that Florina, a nurse, has long endured.

In other turns, Joe Brack is energetic as both the excitable Gabriel Vladu (Florina and Lucia's brother) and an unnamed painter who finds himself on the revolution's front lines. (The production involves much doubling.) David Winkler brings sinister calm to the role of a fascist-leaning Angel, while Ashley Ivey slinks around with adequate creepiness as a vampire whose appearance underscores the bleaker, more chaotic tendencies of the post-Ceausescu era.

Romania changes during "Mad Forest": The play's last third is set after the revolution, when the country is elated but also - authoritarian order and certainty being gone - seething with rumors, bitterness, incompatible opinions and prejudice against ethnic minorities. The ingeniously choreographed final scene in Dove's production captures this mix of bustling ebullience and dangerous anarchy. The characters are still surrounded by silver pedestals, but the Ceausescu busts have yielded to banks of flowers - beautiful and, perhaps not accidentally, blood-red.