CEDAR FALLS, Iowa - History unfurls in its ragged, haunting complexity in "Mad Forest," which opened to a sold-out house Thursday at Theatre UNI.
Director Cynthia Goatley's timing is uncanny. She likely chose this play which reprises the 1989 Romanian Revolution to help us better fathom today's inspiring "Arab Spring." But how could she know her production would open on the day Libya's 42-year dictator fell?
As we watch the three acts of "Mad Forest" play out - pre-revolution Communist Romania, the revolution itself which ended with the trial and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Romania post-revolution - we gain a clearer sense of Libya's ordeal and current challenge.
British playwright Caryl Churchill is one of the major, boundary-pressing figures in theater today. In March 1990, Churchill was commissioned to write of Romania's travail. She brought 10 drama students to Bucharest and, living with families of Romanian drama students, they began a series of interviews that led to the play.
Acts I and III consist of brief vignettes of Romanian life. Churchill frames each as a language lesson, teaching us the "language" of oppression and post-revolution. The play's 11 actors sit in chairs in the front row and come out of the audience to play their scenes, making us feel it could be us.
Some of the Act I scenes have no words at all, but gain power from the mere tableau. In "We buy meat," we see the line outside the store, the wait, the eager gazes through the window. In "What's the time?" lovers grasp each other tight; she looks at her watch; and they grasp again. In another emblematic tableau, the soldiers kick rats as if they are soccer balls and finally stamp them dead.
In Western drama, plays often end with weddings, a sign that society unites and will continue. Churchill upends this tradition in "Mad Forest," for Acts I and III each center on a wedding contorted by oppression or by post-revolution wounds.
Scenic designer Leonard Curtis follows Churchill's lead in creating a minimalist yet symbolic, even surreal, set. Four doors float at odd angles in the air, inviting us inside Romania. They are house doors but look like cement prison doors with barred windows or tiny peepholes.
A huge ladder suggests the church. A priest on a low rung tries to talk to the Angel at the top in Act I. "Should the church take a stand [against oppression]?" he asks. "I try to keep clear of the political side," the Angel responds. "You should do the same." In post-revolution Act III, the Angel dances at the wedding with a vampire, and the Romanian flag has a huge hole in it.
Clay Swanson stood out for me in the agile cast. In Act II he rivets as a wavering member of the secret police. He touched me even more in "The dog is hungry" scene that opens Act III, for he plays an emblematic dog: hungry, beaten, seeking a home after the revolution.
Director Goatley, as innovative as Churchill, makes us feel the three separate historical moments by moving the audience literally from the large Strayer Wood Theatre to the intimate Bertha Martin space for Act II, where we hear of the December 1989 days that were the Revolution.
Act II is one of the most powerful parts of the play, for here 11 Romanians tell us where they were and what they saw Dec. 21 to 25. Their words gain power, for they are delivered with Romanian accents: an impressive feat. UNI language professor Flavia Vernescu aided the students as the show's Language and Culture Consultant.
The play's costumes represent a further technical feat. In "Mad Forest" the 11 actors play 39 different characters. More than 120 costume changes are required, each actor having more than 10 changes.
For almost 30 years, Carol Coburn has given her extraordinary talent as a costumer to Theatre UNI. The huge number of "Mad Forest" costumes is her swan song as she will retire in the spring. But how she has filled our eyes across the years with color and textures, with dazzling design and detail!
"Mad Forest" is a long play. Theatergoers should prepare themselves for almost three hours. I wish the long Act III could be pruned. It didn't register as powerfully for me as the first two very different acts-although the post-revolution fear, paranoia, guilt, and myriad questions certainly come through.
Churchill took the name "Mad Forest" from a Romanian history book that says that Bucharest stands on land that used to be an impenetrable forest: "impenetrable by the foreigner who did not know the paths." Churchill and this UNI production help us know the paths. As Director Goatley writes in her fine program notes: "we can gain a better understanding of the world and our role in it."
Penetrate the "Mad Forest" of oppression and revolution through Sunday at Theatre UNI.