Photo by Paul Kennedy/UCIJust a few short months after Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's 1989 overthrow and execution, playwright Caryl Churchill and a handful of students and designers from London flew to Romania to brainstorm with students there, hoping to create a theatrical production that would reflect their recent turn of bloody events.
The result was MadForest.It's a play split into three parts: a series of stark, often silent vignettes following two families maneuvering through the myriad social restrictions and oppressions of Communism; a human chorus of clipped monologues that take you from the moment when crowds first started booing Ceausescu to the fighting in the streets; and a depiction of Romania post-Communism, its shell-shocked population distrustful of their newfound freedoms as a wave of long-suppressed paranoia, racial hatred and deep historical divisions threaten to wipe out the fledgling democracy.
This production simply bubbles over with luscious imagery. Not having read the script, I'm unsure how much of the dynamism on stage is due to Churchill's words and how much is director Krista Cowan's vibrant imagination. In the end, though, it doesn't really matter, because Cowan, her powerful acting ensemble, and her design team (including scenic designer Chris Hansen's versatile set and Preston Horman's chiaroscuro lighting) deliver the goods. An experimental work that could have become a dry lecture or pretentious performance piece, this heightened, poeticized version of life teems with energy, ideas and vision. While there is an occasional tumble into a kind of collegiate art-house affectation—some mercifully brief dancing, a vampire and a talking dog (don't ask)—Mad Forest'sintelligence and the passion of its direction hit much more often than they miss.
With a theater department bursting with talented professors, students unafraid to tackle avant-garde projects, ingenious designers and enough of a war chest to allow their often jaw-dropping work to be funded, UC Irvine has led something of a theatrical revolution itself over the years. Their consistently bold, risk-taking efforts put to shame the often unimaginative and under-funded work of just about any other school or theater in Orange County, storefront or professional.
MAD FOREST AT THE UC IRVINE STUDIO THEATRE, 300 ARTS, IRVINE, (949) 824-2787. THURS., MARCH 17, 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M. $8-$10.