Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu had been an ardent underground agitator against the Romanian fascist regime in his youth, only to become one of the most unflinchingly hard-line dictators during the Cold War. When the Romanian people revolted against his draconian rule in December 1989, they faced a confusing instability in leadership. To this day, the chaotic and bloody violence surrounding the Romanian Revolution is shrouded in conflicting reports and controversy about what happened. Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, now playing at the Hudson Guild Theater, is a whirligig exploration of dramatic forms that confronts the anarchic hope and despair of this historical moment and its immediate aftermath. Churchill and a group of acting students actually went to Bucharest three months after the revolutionary turmoil to gather evidence for the play and witness the effects of the uprising firsthand. Mad Forest offers a hodgepodge of documentary truths and surrealist fictions to represent a bizarre political situation where the line between truth and fiction continues to be a dizzying blur.
The first portion of the show is a fast-paced series of vignettes that capture an agitated day in the life of the Romanian workers: short sketches about waiting in breadlines, classroom propaganda, domestic tensions that arise from severe economic depression, and the struggle to carry on a normal existence in the face of a mounting political catastrophe. While Churchill's Brechtian alienation effects force the audience to think instead of responding viscerally to the characters, some scenes were so brief or disorienting that they seemed to lack any coherence or depth before the next one followed on its predecessor's coattails.
The second, and most successful, portion of the play depicts the actual weeklong skirmishes and sieges of the revolution through the voices of soldiers and workers, each speaking toward the audience in a collective monologue. We are left to connect their individual stories into a historical narrative ourselves, ending with a powerfully elegiac anthem and a gathering street vigil for the slain.
After the intermission, the show changes shape yet again to present an allegorical dialogue between a hungry vampire and a starving dog, complex symbols of the political bloodshed, parasitic relationships, and desperation that the Romanian people had to deal with in the atmosphere of their newfound (but ultimately foundationless) freedom.
The play's last section depicts a more traditional, domestic drama about how two families from different classes cope with the fact that the widespread economic shortages and political Balkanization won't be fixed overnight. The last scene is a wedding reception that transforms into a brawl, only to shift back, somewhat less believably, into a celebration containing folk dances, much as Romania's own fate swung precipitously between celebrations and violence at this time. But, if this scene's plot is not believable, it raises fascinating political questions about how much one can believe any historical representation, what use that representation has been put to, and what forces are behind the scenes doing the plotting.
The large cast was uniformly adequate, though Megan Ketch stood out in her sympathetic if brief portrayal of a poor young flower seller, while Matthew Gray delivered a strong performance as an arrogant officer who was nevertheless disarmingly compassionate beneath his tough exterior. Adam Belvo also showed multiple talents taking on a diversity of roles ranging from a priest, a grandfather, and a vampire to an old aunt, a painter, and a soldier.
Director Julia Beardsley O'Brien struggled with the difficult task of assembling this diverse and, at times, collage-like text into a dramatically effective whole. Though the play has a firecracker-fast pace in many sections, some scenes felt static and overly long, since once we absorbed their political point we were ready to move on to the next one.
Set design (by Neil Becker) and blocking were conservative, considering the postmodern delirium of forms—political and dramaturgical—that the play both depicts and challenges through its ironies. A few innovative stage techniques, such as a two-tier set during a scene where a teacher faced the audience on a platform while her students faced the audience from below, proved the most interesting. Here, for a rare moment, the production managed to find a parallel to the text's investigation of narrative disjunctions in both theatrical structures and the theater of war.
Mad Forest is a radical study of how revolutions often come disappointingly full circle, as one tyrant may be disposed only to be replaced by another. Although the play is presented in a turbulent variety of voices and formats, this production too often seemed stodgy and monotonous.