Mad Forest

Garret Dillahunt,Tim Blake Nelson,Jake Weber,Mad Forest


CHARACTERS: Ianos, Painter

New York Theatre Workshop
November 22, 1991 – February 2, 1992

City Center Stage 1
September 1992 –

WRITTEN BY: Caryl Churchill

DIRECTED BY: Mark Wing-Davey


Rob Campbell – Securitate Man/Angel/Patient/Toma/Ghost/Waiter/Boy Student
Randy Danson – Irina/Grandmother/Flower Seller
Garret Dillahunt – Ianos/Painter
Lanny Flaherty – Bogdan/Soldier/Translator
Calista Flockhart – Lucia/Student Doctor
Mary Mara – Florina/Girl Student
Christopher McCann – Mihai/Dog/Bulldozer Driver/Wayne
Tim Blake Nelson – Gabriel/Boy Student
Mary Shultz – Flavia/House Painter/Grandmother/Rodica
Joseph Siravo – Vampire/Grandfather/Soldier/Priest/Securitate Officer/Someone with Sore Throat/Old Aunt
Jake Weber – Radu/Soldier


Three months after the 1989 fall of the Ceausescus, a theatrical brigade including the British playwright Caryl Churchill, a director named Mark Wing-Davey and 10 of Mr. Wing-Davey’s acting students went to Romania on what promised to be a preposterous mission. Their aim was to become instant experts on a nation in post-revolutionary turmoil and to make a play about what they had seen. Their visit was scarcely longer than a week. (…)

“Mad Forest” can penetrate beneath the surface of its well-chronicled story precisely because it is not journalism. Only in the second (and least successful) of the three acts, a Living Newspaper in which the company temporarily simulates Romanian accents to recite an anecdotal oral history of the tumultuous week after the massacre of demonstrators at Timosoara, does the play purport to traffic in documentary reality. The rest of “Mad Forest” forgets about the facts, which remain murky anyway in Romania, and exerts a theatrical imagination to capture the truth about people who remain in place no matter what regimes come and go.

Miss Churchill achieves this by devoting her first and third acts to an examination of two Bucharest families, one of laborers and one of intellectuals, before and after the revolution. But if the two families give the evening a focus and a story of sorts — the households are to be linked by marriage — the technique of “Mad Forest” is elliptical and atmospheric, often in the manner of Eastern European fiction of the Kundera and Havel era. In Act I, the double lives of people trapped in a totalitarian state are dramatized by gesture and image — the mute, dour figures waiting hopelessly in a meat queue, for instance — rather than by the dialogue, which is often oblique or insincere, lest the dread secret police, the Securitate, be eavesdropping. In Act III, the liberated Romanians do little but talk, but they often talk over each other, screaming and arguing in paroxysms of xenophobia and paranoia that sometimes seem even more frightening than the sullen episodes of repression that precede them.

As is the playwright’s style, some vignettes are meanly funny. A young woman (Calista Flockhart) seeking an abortion in Act I is told by a doctor (Joseph Siravo) that “there is no abortion in Romania” even as he pockets the bribe that will secure his illicit services. A teacher (Mary Shultz) who lauds the Ceausescus in her classroom at the play’s outset is wondering by Act III what strings can be pulled to keep her job in a new, upended Romania where “we don’t know who we know.” A rebellious art student (Jake Weber) turns on his parents for collaborating with the discredited dictatorship even as he finds the sloganeering of the new, Iliescu Government chillingly interchangeable with that of the old.

But such conventional political satire is eventually overwhelmed by a more surreal form of theater. A nasty madman (Rob Campbell) roams through a hospital, challenging the official version of the December events by incanting such unanswered questions as, “Did we have a revolution or a putsch?” and, “Were the Securitate disguised in army uniforms?” Mythological figures enter the action, among them an archangel who seemingly collaborated with the genocidal Iron Guard of the 1930’s and an elegant Transylvanian vampire drawn by the smell of blood. As the phantasmagoric sequences thicken and grow more grotesque, Miss Churchill gives poetic voice to the new crisis of a society in which the old totalitarian order has splintered into a no less malignant disorder. Abruptly the new democrats look suspiciously like the old fascists and a hunt for class and racial enemies becomes the pathological preoccupation of people who remain hungry and enraged. [NY Times]