Rampant confusion mars 'Mad Forest'

August 18, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In the second act of Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest," there's a scene in a Romanian hospital in which a confused, disturbed patient spews out an incessant slew of questions about the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu a few days before.

"Were the terrorists and the army really fighting or were they only pretending to fight? And for whose benefit? And by whose orders? Who got Ceausescu to call everyone together? And is he really dead?"

His questions turn out to be contagious. A young man who escorts the patient back to his room returns with even more questions.

In a sense, the scene is a metaphor for the entire play, which is mired in confusion. Some of this confusion appears to be intentional. Churchill wrote "Mad Forest" in Romania, shortly after the December 1989 revolution, while working with acting students from that country as well as her native Great Britain. As the play's title suggests, she is showing, in part, the turmoil and upheaval of the revolution.

And yet, in the Potomac Theatre Project's production at Olney Theatre Center, director Cheryl Faraone takes the play's confusion a step too far, with the result that the production tends to be more perplexing than illuminating.

For instance, though the cast's 11 actors play multiple roles, and their performances are almost invariably strong, some of their characterizations are so similar, it's nearly impossible to tell many of the characters apart -- a flaw reinforced by the sameness of the costumes, designed by Jule Emerson and Lin Waters.

The play focuses on two families and two weddings, and because the same actor (David Bryan Jackson) -- wearing essentially the same costume -- plays the bridegroom in one wedding and the father in another, the first wedding could be misconstrued as bigamous.

Such problems are further exacerbated by the imaginative leaps that are one of Churchill's trademarks. In this case, she includes several fantasy sequences, ranging from a scene between an angel and a priest to a scene between a vampire and a talking dog. These scenes provide a reprieve from the chaos of the more realistic scenes, but they don't add significantly to the drama, and occasionally, they detract.

Indeed, the play's clearest and most moving scene is also one of the most literal -- a scene in which the actors play characters from different walks of life, tearfully giving testimony to the events of the revolution.

Yet despite the otherwise bewildering aspects of the production, a number of performances stand out (including several by students from Middlebury College, where Faraone heads the theater department).

Lee Mikeska Gardner is poignant as a student doctor testifying about treating gunshot victims, and she's surprisingly empathetic as a teacher facing dismissal after 20 years of loyally teaching her students to revere Ceausescu. Paul Takacs is disturbingly effective as the patient spewing questions (he's also touching as the talking dog, though having him play this part in the nude seems gratuitous). And, as a young woman who endangers her entire family by marrying an American and then leaves him, Michole Biancosino is as selfish and silly as, well, a spoiled American.

The Potomac Theatre Project is an 11-year-old company that explores cultural and social issues and is now in its fourth year as Olney's resident alternative theater. This is the first time, however, that Potomac has presented plays during Olney's regular season. For that reason, Potomac is occupying makeshift quarters in the theater's Scene Shop, where its productions of "Mad Forest" and "Good," C.P. Taylor's play about Nazi Germany, are running in rotating repertory.

Set and lighting designer Adam Magazine doesn't always use this space to the best advantage in "Mad Forest." The stage area is so elongated and the lighting so murky, they render the action even more mystifying.

The play's title has a literal meaning as well as a figurative one. As a note in the script explains, "Mad Forest" was the name given to a forest that once stood on the site of present-day Bucharest and "was impenetrable for the foreigner." Though the title's figurative meaning makes an indelible impression, too much of this script -- and of Potomac's production -- is virtually impenetrable.

'Mad Forest'

Where: Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center Scene Shop, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: In rotating repertory with "Good," 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Sept. 6

Tickets: Free, but $4 guarantees seats

Call: 301-924-3400

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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