Mad Forest Review: Caryl Churchill’s play about revolution creates a new one on Zoom

Bard’s splendidly glitchy production of “Mad Forest,” Caryl Churchill’s fascinating avant-garde drama about the 1989 Romanian Revolution, is the first live play I’ve seen since the shutdown that attempts a full staging via Zoom. Rather than just reading the stage directions, the twelve actors enact them – a mother slaps her son; friends share a piece of chocolate, and lie down together on a lawn; a couple hug one another; the members of a wedding party get into a massive group brawl — although each of the actors, all undergraduates at Bard, are performing  remotely from locations across the country where they are sheltering.
Presented live and free last night through Theatre for a New Audience in collaboration with Fisher Center at Bard (with two more live performances scheduled for Sunday at 5, and Wednesday at 3), the show was a revelation, and something of a revolution itself, suggesting new paths forward for online theater.
This is not to say everything went smoothly; quite the opposite. The interactions were often awkward, the picture grainy, and the transmission twitchy; indeed, several times the picture froze, and, following instructions from TFANA in the chat room off to the right of the screen, I had to refresh my computer just to get the show back underway. But this “Mad Forest” worked – and not despite these imperfections, but in some measure because of them.
The reliance on undergraduates feels inspired, because it’s so fitting. The playwright herself, along with original director Mark Wing-Davey, enlisted a group of students from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, to accompany them on a fact-finding mission with students from Romania,  just months after the uprising in December, 1989, which toppled the country’s long-time dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. “Emotions in Bucharest were still raw,” Churchill has written, “and the Romanian students and the other people we met helped us to understand what Romania had been like under Ceaușescu, as well as what happened in December and what was happening while we were there. We learned far more in a short time than anyone could have done alone, and the company’s intense involvement made it possible to write the play.” The London students put on the first production of the play at their school in June, 1990. It was produced in New York by the New York Theatre Workshop in 1991 (with a cast that included future familiar actors Calista Flockhart, Tim Nelson and Jake Weber), which transferred to Manhattan Theatre Club the following year.
Named after a forest in Bucharest that was notoriously impenetrable to foreigners, “Mad Forest” is divided into three acts – the stifled, upside-down life in Romania under Ceaușescu; the violent, confusing uprising of December, 1989 which resulted in the dictator’s execution; celebratory, anxious, uncertain life in the weeks afterward.
The key to understanding Churchill’s approach – as well as that of Ashley Tata, who directs the current production – may be in a joke that the character Ianoș (Lily Goldman) tells about Ceaușescu, although never mentioning the dictator’s name; Ianoș  just says “he” (and everybody knows to whom that refers; there is no other “he” during Ceaușescu’s reign.) He dies and goes to Heaven, where God goes to him and says “I hear you think you’re better than me.”
“Yes I am.”
God asks him who made the earth and the stars and the people and the trees. One by one, he answers “You did.”
‘Then how can you possibly be greater than me?’ And he says, ‘All these things, what did you make them from?’ And God said, ‘Chaos, I made it all out of Chaos.’ ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘I made chaos.’”
“Mad Forest” helps us feel what it was like to live under such a man in an impressive range of scenes. In Act I, while the main characters, members of two different families, come into focus, the scenes are slow-moving and often largely silent, as if people are afraid to speak or even to move.  Those who do speak the most are tools of the regime. Flavia Antonescu, a teacher (Mica Hastings), drones on in her classroom about how “this great son of the nation” is “everything in the country that is most durable and harmonious.” In the next scene, her son Radu Antonescu (Tim Halvorsen), while waiting in a long line to buy food, whispers “Down with Ceaușescu.” (What we see on screen are multiple images just of people’s feet on the line, as if even the camera were afraid to show anybody’s face.)  In one chilling scene, a member of the Securitate, the secret police, (Charlie Wood) interrogates electrician Bogdan Vladu (Phil Carroll) because his daughter Lucia (Ali Kane) is planning to marry an American.

Act II, by contrast, is a dizzying succession of quick-hit, intercut documentary-like accounts — by a doctor and a student and a driver of a bulldozer and a member of Securitate — about what they saw during the days of the uprising, and what they did or didn’t do. It culminates in a Zoom gallery view of  what we can view as a frenzied mob scene, except in this mob, we can make out each of the dozen disparate reactions.

Throughout “Mad Forest,” there are also fanciful scenes  —  between a compromised priest and an even more compromised angel, between a doctor and a dead patient, and between a needy dog and a bored vampire.

The actors, who portray up to seven characters each, certainly meet the demands of their roles, which, given the circumstances, go beyond what’s usually expected. They were each reportedly mailed the props, costumes, earbuds, lighting equipment, and green screens and worked to coordinate their lines of vision to help create the illusion of characters sharing a space.  But this is the director Ashley Tata’s show, and it’s trailblazing.

This is not to say I agree with every choice the director makes;  I felt there too much artsy movement and loud music in Act II, which distracted from the details of the accounts, and detracted from their power.

But Tata’s direction, in conjunction with the technical innovations, doesn’t just show what Zoom theater is capable of.  It enhances Churchill’s play in unexpected ways. The grainy dull transmission reproduces the effects of a bad television broadcast — just the sort of TV that we can imagine the Romanians had to put up with. And, in case our imagination doesn’t reach that far back in time and place, there is a note from the director in the program to help it along: “….television and the amateur camcorder fundamentally shaped the message of the Romanian Revolution. State-run, regularly televised addresses provide the platform of choice for dictators, including the Ceausescus. Churchill’s play narrates the revolutionaries’ early action of occupying the television station. They opened the doors so citizens — victims of the regime — could testify against a government whose policies had silenced them for decades. For days ordinary Romanians delivered extemporaneous monologues in a kind of ad hoc truth and reconciliation commission. Technology was foregrounded as a tool to unify and amplify the shared experiences of these individuals…”

Each twitch of Zoom felt deliberate, even when it clearly wasn’t. The accompanying chat room helped make this play. At one point, two of my fellow audience members had this exchange about the need to refresh:

First theatergoer: I’ve left and come back at least 6 times and still have problems

Second theatergoer: I’ve had relationships like that

That response was a joke, but to me it speaks to our relationship as well with “Mad Forest.” Every time I had to refresh, I felt Zoom was a tool that unified and amplified the shared experiences of the community. Two communities — the people in Romania three decades ago, and the many of us stuck home now, relying on screens for our theater.

Mad Forest: A Play from Romania
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Ashley Tata
Scenic Design by Afsoon Pajoufar, costume design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, lighting design by Abigail Hoke-Brady, compositions and sound Design by Paul Pinto, movement direction by Dan Safer, video design by Eamonn Farrel, production stage manager Vanessa C. Hart
Phil Carroll as Bogdan/Translator/Vampire
Andrew Omar Crisol as Grandfather (Bogdan’s)/Angel/Boy Student 2
Lily Goldman as Ianoș/Painter/Old Aunt
Tim Halvorsen as Radu/Boy Student 1
Mica Hastings as Flavia/House Painter
Azalea Hudson as Grandmother (Bogdan’s)/Scribe/Someone With a Sore Throat
Ali Kane as Lucia/Girl Student
Gavin McKenzie as Mihai/Doctor/Wayne/Soldier/Patient/Ghost/ Soldier 2 (of Rodica’s Nightmare)
Taty Rozetta as Irina/Rodica/Waiter
Violet Savage as Florina/Student Doctor
Yibin (Bill) Wang as Gabriel/Grandmother (Flavia’s)/Toma/Bulldozer Driver
Charlie Wood as Priest/Securitate Officer/Soldier 1 (of Rodica’s Nightmare)

Video Programming Andy Carluccio
Video Engineer Sean B. Leo
Properties Master Shane Crittenden
Assistant Stage Manager Anisha Hosangady
Assistant Stage Manager/Sound Operator Maggie McFarland
Assistant Directors Laila Perlman and Angela Woodack
MAD FOREST is presented through special arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc. Special thanks to Mel Kenyon.

Running time: one hour 45 minutes with no intermission.
Free online.
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Digital program

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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