"The Forest," now on stage at the Greenbelt Arts Center, is a comedy about class struggle, existential angst and teen suici- . . . hey, wait a second.
Oh, right! It's a Russian comedy.
Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky may be called "the Russian Shakespeare," but his works are virtually unseen in the United States. (Nineteenth-century Russian comedy is probably a bit of a head-scratcher for most U.S. audiences, which don't tend to find ruminations on suffering and the essential insignificance of man to be real knee-slappers.)
"Forest" director Grey Valenti tries to surmount this obstacle by drawing on the tradition of commedia dell'arte, stylized farce characterized by broadly played, easily identifiable stock characters and slapstick physical humor.
Valenti's vision is ambitious, which is always a double-edged sword in amateur theater--professional, too, for that matter. There are so many flourishes around the edges that the play itself is sometimes cheated. And many elements seem only half-developed: For example, although the actors participated in a sort of commedia boot camp, most lack the precise timing and physical discipline needed to really pull it off. That's not a criticism of the performers, but a commentary on the demanding nature of physical comedy.
More successful is Valenti's effort to bring the titular forest to life, in which she is ably assisted by costumer Hopi Auerbach and set designers Ken Inouye and Bill Hardy. A gorgeous, abstract leaf canopy slides in for the outdoor scenes while slithering, masked actors embody various flora and fauna. Even masked, it's obvious that the performers enjoy exploring this new range of movement.
Once underway, the contorted plot weaves the fortunes of a wealthy, manipulative widow, her maid, her gossipy cronies, a couple of penniless orphans, the local peasantry and a pair of itinerant actors (one of whom happens to be the widow's long-lost nephew). That's a lot to keep track of, and the characterizations don't always go deep enough to explain the motives underlying the action.
After a rough start, the cast found its collective feet in the second and third acts. Bill Hardy, as the nephew-actor, strikes just the right balance between his character's nobility and pomposity. Karen Munson and young Bronwen Grebe bring haunting emotional depth to their despairing monologues. On the lighter side, class clown Joe Pugliese's mugging provides comic relief while Sheilah Crossley-Cox makes the hilarious most of her smallish role.
Yes, the show is a little overstuffed. No, not every element works. But "The Forest" makes for an enjoyable evening largely because it is so over-ambitious. There's a thrill to be had from watching a troupe of theater enthusiasts--ranging in age roughly from 15 to 60--striving to do something different, to test and stretch their limits. (That goes for the designers, too.) It is their energy, their enthusiasm and their commitment that makes this production special.
"The Forest" runs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 7 at the Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway Rd., Greenbelt. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 301-441-8770.