Mad Forest | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Mad Forest 

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Stage Left Theatre

When Romania finally joined its other Eastern European brethren in shaking off communism, there was something eerie about the whole thing. For one thing, Romania hadn't exactly followed trends before. For another, it had one of the most tightly controlled state military and political apparatuses around, and the Romanian people were notoriously passive, paralyzed after years of Ceausescu's severe repression. So why did they seem to erupt so suddenly, just days before Christmas 1989?

Caryl Churchill's play Mad Forest, in its Chicago premiere at Stage Left Theatre, tries to capture some of the absurdity, the fear, and the frustrations of the Romanian revolution. Structured in three acts that represent events before, during, and after the revolution, Mad Forest has some strong material, some solid performances, and the advantage of topicality, but the current production is confusing and cold. When the curtain drops we've learned a few historical tidbits, but we don't really care about the revolution, Romania, or any of Churchill's characters.

The first act is a series of vignettes showing the quotidian horror of Romanian life. Each scene is introduced by an audiotape of a Romanian voice, with the title repeated in Romanian and then English by a live actor. What we see are young men telling drunken jokes about the dictator, families turning up radios and whispering so as not to be heard by the microphones planted everywhere, government operatives bribing ordinary citizens into spying on their neighbors.

These people are so frightened that, though they all dream of revolution, no one dares speak its name. "I hope it has started," says one citizen. When the noise begins, another says, "It is happening." Silences speak volumes throughout Mad Forest; the real communication here goes on in passed notes, knowing looks, blank faces, and shameful glances. Fear grips everybody.

Most of these scenes concern two families, the proletarian Vladus, and the Antonescus, who have enthusiastically if naively bought into Ceausescu's program. They are linked by the romance, at first illicit, between Radu Antonescu, an art student, and Florina Vladu, a nurse. Before the revolution, Radu's father prohibits him from seeing Florina. By play's end the two young people marry, in a wedding that's punctuated with fistfights, ethnic slurs, and despair. But they do marry, and that, in this increasingly maddening situation, is a small victory in and of itself.

The play's second act changes format: the players act out taped interviews conducted by Churchill and some Romanian students. These include a variety of people talking about their participation in the events of December 1989, in which Ceausescu and his hated wife Elena were felled by a firing squad on Christmas morning. The stories themselves are often compelling, but the actors never manage convincing or consistent Romanian accents. Worse, the characters get lost; the actors change roles too many times for any sense of continuity.

Churchill plays pretty broadly--and loosely--with surreal symbolism in this act. There is a vaguely homosexual fascist archangel who embraces an apolitical stance. There is also a charming vampire who engages in lively banter with a talking dog. Soon he is turning the dog into a vampire too, condemning it to an eternal nightmare of stalking and killing.

The ideas behind these symbols--moral bankruptcy, the randomness of the killing--should have come to fruition in the third act, but instead Churchill just seems in a hurry to get it over with. With the Ceausescus out of the way, Romanians have no one to hate but each other. Everyone questions the process of the revolution: How could the men who had supported Ceausescu for nearly a quarter century become reformers overnight? How many people were killed at Timisoara? Where are the bodies? Where did the guns come from on December 21? Why was Ceausescu killed so quickly?

The wedding, which takes up most of the third act, is ominous, especially when the vampire and the fascist archangel take each other as dance partners. But Mad Forest still feels unfinished. And far away, like some science fiction movie that never quite feels like it could happen to us, or to anyone in real life.

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