School of Drama tests boundaries of theater

Playwright Caryl Churchill traveled to Romania months after the revolution ended to develop Mad Forest. (credit: Courtesy of Louis Stein) Playwright Caryl Churchill traveled to Romania months after the revolution ended to develop Mad Forest. (credit: Courtesy of Louis Stein)

A blood-lusting vampire, a rebellious son, and a bigoted father were among the characters that took the stage Friday night in the School of Drama’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. Set in the years surrounding the 1989 Romanian Revolution, the play explores life in Romania under the dictatorship of communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu, the violent uprising that overthrew him, and the ensuing period of insecurity. Infused with documentary-like elements and magic realism, Mad Forest draws attention to human drama during a little-known revolution and tests boundaries between theater and film, fact and fiction.

The play follows the experiences of two families, the Vladus and the Antonescus. At the play’s opening, both families experience hardships under Ceaucescu’s regime. The Vladu family suffers public scrutiny as a result of the engagement of their daughter Lucia, played by senior drama student Ava DeLuca-Verley, to an American. Meanwhile, young Radu Antonescu (senior drama student Noah Plomgren) finds his own revolutionary sentiments growing despite his parents’ influence, as well as his infatuation with Lucia’s sister Florina (senior drama student Lilli Passero). Over the course of the play, these characters face difficulties not only leading up to the revolution, but also in its chaotic wake.

The set was minimal, with tall gray beams that evoked the cold industrialism that is typically associated with communist Eastern Europe. Despite the bareness of the set, however, the stage was brought to life by the vibrant and skilled actors. Even on opening night, the entire play ran without a visible hitch.

A lengthy series of mock television interviews was an unexpected but powerful conclusion to the first half of the play. Actors portrayed witnesses to the revolutionary violence, offering their testimonies in a televised setting. These interviews were pre-recorded and projected onto the set, rather than acted out on stage. This departure from on-stage acting blurred boundaries between theater and film; though on-stage actors occasionally supplemented the recorded interviews, there was very little live activity while the recordings played.

In addition to testing boundaries of theater and film, the interviews also crossed certain lines between fact and fiction. Though the interviewees on screen were actors, the setup evoked certain documentary-like elements, giving the audience a false sense of factuality. At the same time, however, the interviews were a powerful reminder that the events portrayed in the play, though told by fictional characters, were very violent realities to those who witnessed the revolution firsthand.

Another unexpected element of the play was the presence of vampires, angels, ghosts, and other supernatural figures. Though this magical aspect added an interesting dimension to the play, these elements seemed somewhat out of place; it was difficult to see how the supernatural dimension helped to further develop or add to the play.

Despite some eccentric elements, Mad Forest is overall a fascinating experience, offering a look into the rarely discussed Romanian Revolution through compelling characters and techniques that deviate from mainstream theater production.