UNCW closes their season with a startling production of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest.” Churchill is one the more interesting playwrights working today. Her 1982 show, “Top Girls,” is probably her most well-known, which explores the sacrifices women must make to succeed in the world. She uses voices of dead but famous women to have that discussion.
Her 2009 play, “Seven Jewish Children,” put her squarely at the center of controversy regrading what roles art, narrative and writers have in society: to reassure and reaffirm? Or to challenge? Throughout her career Churchill has sought to challenge. “Mad Forest” is an excellent, though not as well-known, example of that choice.
Set in and around events leading up to the deposition and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu, president of Romania, and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the script is powerful but tough. Churchill and a group of students from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama traveled to Romania to put the piece together (not unlike Moisés Kaufman of “The Laramie Project”). Act 1 starts with a family grappling with a daughter who wants to marry an American and emigrate. Bogdan (Tony Choufani) and Irina (Katherine Rosner) spend much of their lives with the radio on so they can talk without spies of the state recording their conversations. So we find one of the first motifs of the show: Characters with no voices find freedom of expression and build to a crescendo of screaming by the end. We watch Bogdan and Irina mime a conversation with their daughters, Lucia (Taylor England) and Florina (Crysta Arnold), which includes a display of fresh eggs and American cigarettes. Across town another family, Mihai (John McCall), Flavia (Arianna Tysinger) and their son Radu (Trevor Tackett), study and work in code. So they say nothing to each other, both metaphorically and literally.
What begins is a kaleidoscope of vignettes from the characters’ lives to depict life in Romania at the end of 1980s: pressure and recruitment to spy for the Securitate; attempts to obtain a passport; black-market purchases; medical and abortion access; education; food lines and death squads; the heritage of Iron Guards from the Nazi Era; control of the radio and television and the impact not only of family life but every facet of thought and inner space. The actors are not given much room to maneuver within the confines of the script: Their inner life must be hidden and their exterior life carefully controlled. Only England’s Lucia pushes back against this in what appears to be incredible selfishness. We watch her delight in a letter from abroad proposing marriage—filled with all the joy and delight that comes with it. We watch her brim with exhalation and desire during a secret rendezvous with her lover. The only other character to come close to expressing such unbridled joy is her brother Gabriel (Reilly Callaghan)—when relating his story of circumventing the authorities as he’s questioned about his sister’s engagement to an American.
The transformation of characters in the second half, life post-revolution, is pretty remarkable. Besides the confusion of a country without a specific and identifiable government, people who have been repressed all their lives now burst from the seams with a childish immaturity. They discover not only do they not know themselves, they don’t know each other.
At Florina’s wedding Gabriel’s latent xenophobia explodes forth in spite of his newfound status as a hero of the revolution. The depth of Lucia’s selfishness manifests and is met with the twin surprise of her parents’ loathing of her. Choufani picks a fight with the groom and his family, then a fight with his own daughter. This quiet, mild-mannered man who barely spoke before now cannot be silenced.
Rosner gives us the complex world of family relationships as the matriarch, who won’t discuss conspiracy theories with her son but tells Lucia that she owes her parents’ immigration to the U.S. after all they did for her. Even the waiter at the wedding (Josh Browner) has opinions about Lucia. and what is owed to him and the rest of Romania by her and the West.
In between the two bookends there is the revolution, which is presented almost as a documentary with 11 people recounting their personal experiences. All walks of life are represented: a house painter with six children (Arianna Tysinger), who incidentally would have been receiving a special stipend from the government for having so many children; a bulldozer driver (Reilly Callaghan); an artist (Ezra Lawrence Goldberg Wool); a medical student (Taylor England); a Securitate officer (Trevor Tackett); a soldier (Matthew Carter); a flower seller (Crysta Arnold); a student (Katherine Rosner); and others. As a bridge for a moment of finding words, it really is powerful. Each stands and faces front, recounting the events as they experienced them. Emerging themes are ones that don’t come with political rhetoric: Where is my family? Are they safe? Where are my children? How do we get care for the wounded? The shock of the events, the speed, and the confusion emerge from the young performers with surprising power.
While listening to them try to sort out conflicting emotions, I kept thinking about a former neighbor who was born in communist Poland. The first time we discussed Leach Walesa he commented when communism finally ended, it was so surprising—because one day the soldiers were marching in the street and the next it was solidarity. It was that fast after years of struggle. Each of these young performers onstage communicated the same surprise and shock. They do an excellent job of letting events unfold with dawning realization and fear.
It could be easy to fall into stereotypes with the characters in this show, yet director Ed Wagenseller and his cast skirt that trap. At every turn, we see real people who struggle for survival in the midst of great confusion and treachery. That effort (and success) is what makes the evening powerful. Wagenseller is clearly attracted to epic scripts that address issues integral to his life and generation. He also directed UNCW’s production of “Angels in America” a few years ago, another script that can only be discussed in colossal terms. In his director’s note he asks how a modern audience relates to a play about communism in a world almost devoid of communism? It’s an interesting question to pose to a cast who collectively hold George W. Bush as the first president they remember in their lifetimes. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the specter of communism loomed heavily in the American and Western consciousness. Wagenseller’s courage in taking on projects like these and guiding his young students through the waters they evoke is impressive. The results produced onstage speak for themselves.