by Caryl Churchill
UNB Theatre (English 2170)
Caryl Churchill is one of the most challenging and exciting playwrights around. Like most people, I've seen her work only in university productions, where young actors have to hurl themselves into the unknown, placing themselves in the hands of a director in whom they have confidence, because regularly they've never seen a play anything like the one they're finding themselves in. Twice I've seen Top Girls carried off, and once a production of Cloud Nine achieved that kind of headlong and heedless momentum.
So when I learned that Theatre UNB was mounting a production of her Mad Forest, a play collaboratively written and workshopped as part of a trip to Bucharest, a few months after the revolution which overthrew Ceaucescu, with students from the London Central School of Drama, I was sure I wasn't going to miss it.
And I'm glad I didn't, even though I can't report that the production achieved the kind of focused passion I'd hoped for. The production had its moments, and you wouldn't suggest that it wasted an instant of anybody's time, but in the last analysis I came away still hoping for more, and ready to see another production of this play at the drop of a hat.
The script is organized in a peculiar three-part structure. In parts one and three, we see a series of scenes designed to give us some sense of what it might be like for a couple of normal families to live through this sort of social cataclysm. Sandwiched between them is a sort of choral reading or pageant theatre presentation of the revolution itself. In the first and last sections, we follow, loosely, the relations among two families, and we come to care about some of the characters -- especially Lucia and Florina, the daughters of the Vladus, an electrician and a tramdriver, whose lively sisterhood is forced to survive in a world where you have to turn the radio up to a deafening volume in case the Securitate is listening, and their brother, who is injured and becomes a "hero" during the revolution, and their opposite numbers (who live in a room on the opposite side of the stage), the Antonescus, whose son, an art student, becomes in some ways the main character of the play, and whose father, an architect working on to the obscene folly of Ceaucescu's projected (and oft-revised) palace, doesn't understand why his son doesn't just play along, using his father's connections to get ahead.
In a number of ways the play reminded me of Brecht, and perhaps even more of Charles Mee's Full Circle, perhaps because of the location and political context, and the way a huge social revolution was refracted through the experience of everyday individuals, neither particularly heroic or venal, just the kinds of folks we'd be if we were swept up in the kind of political storms which sweep through the Balkans and the Caucasus with some regularity. And perhaps also because of the way the drama uses anti-realistic conventions to remind us of the fact that this is a story with a point, not just a series of pathetic events for us to feel empathic about.
In order to make this play work, the series of short scenes, often oddly truncated or anticlimactic, or ending with silences, need to be punctuated with lighting precision, so that we never have the slightest doubt whether we're watching the characters, in the scene, or the actors between scenes, moving furniture and getting on and off stage. In the Theatre UNB production, this didn't consistently happen. Many of the actors were extremely strong -- I particularly admired Paula Hall and Candice Lindstone as the daughters, Josef Addelman and Kirk McInerney as the architect and his rebellious son, and (in the third act especially) Matthew Spinney as Bogdan, the incoherently resentful electrician, and Kate Toner's wonderful turn as a dog being victimized by a vampire (yes, it's that kind of play, too).
But regularly it wasn't as clear as it needed to be exactly when a scene ended, so we were left to wonder whether a silence was a meaningful pause or simply a moment between the scene and the change, whether a character's move to pick up a chair was something the character was doing or something the actor needed to do to make way for the next scene. Some of this was, I think, the result of the amount of scenery moving that needed to be done, and I wondered whether it would have been possible to do the scenes with even more minimal scenery, so that it never needed to be moved, or to have all the actors on stage throughout, and those in a given scene step forward. I'm not sure this would be feasible, but I do think that the structural tension -- especially in the first half, which depended on our feeling the increasing pressure of the oppressive regime's omnipresence in these everyday lives -- was dissipated after almost every scene as we waited for a chair or table to be lugged on or off, or a street sign to be set up.
This was a less serious problem in the third act, where the scenes themselves are not only longer, but more bizarre, as the folks we met in the opening try to make their way in the new, chaotic and ruleless world left after the collapse of the totalitarian regime, where political arguments lead quickly to physical conflict, where children play a bizarre hackey-sack sort of soccer with a dead rat, and where vampires roam the streets (this is, after all, not all that far from Transylvania).
One peculiarity of the staging is that individual scenes are each introduced by an actor (one not involved in the scene at hand) coming forward and reading from a prominently labeled "Romanian Phrase Book." In each case the phrase, while plausibly a phrase which might actually appear in one of those books, also identified a character and the theme of the upcoming scene. In this production, it seemed to me there could have been a more consistent convention around these readings. As it was, some actors played the scene for intense expression (reading the Romanian expressionlessly, then the English with exaggerated inflection, then back to the Romanian like a machine), while others seemed actually to be learning the Romanian. Whatever the reason, it didn't seem to me the device worked particularly well, and became rather oddly predictable by the end.
The pivotal center section, which was staged with ten actors, each in her own space, facing us and alternately telling us what their experience of the revolution was, had another set of problems. Although, again, there were actors who were clearly in command of their characters, confident and clear -- I particularly noticed Amanda Doucet as a student doctor, recounting her horrific experiences in the hospital, and Stephen Cole as the unrepentant Securitate officer -- the whole experience was less compelling than I think it might have been. Perhaps it was the fact that whenever anyone was speaking, everyone else on stage essentially had no role, so we couldn't tell whether they were ignoring the rest of the narrative, or in suspended animation. Nine people in our view ignoring the one speaking had the effect of lowering the emotional temperature. Whether this could have been solved by having the characters lit by pinspots when speaking, or somehow eliding those who weren't speaking, again, I don't know, but it seemed that the scene had a potential for power that wasn't achieved.
As a class production -- this is the term project of English 2170 -- this was an impressive achievement. I still hope, however, to see this play done in a way that shows me how these production challenges might be solved to make this experience measure up to other Caryl Churchill productions I've seen.