Last weekend, Swarthmore’s Production Ensemble — a combination of both student and hired actors — performed Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest.
The play, split into three parts, portrays life before, during, and after the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which precipitated the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Parts I and III are fictional stories about two Romanian families and their lives before and after the revolution. These stories are told in short, disjointed segments that show what life was like in Romania during those periods of time. Part II of the play is especially distinct in its structure. It tells an hour-by-hour story of the actual events of the revolution itself. The story is told through the reenactment of real-life interviews with people who witnessed the revolution as it occurred.
As part of her research for the play, Churchill travelled to Bucharest, Romania and worked with a group of local students. “A lot of interviews were done about the revolution itself, and so she just stuck in the middle of her play actual accounts of people’s stories,” said director Alex Torra.
The inclusion of the interviews gave a fascinating insight into the chaos of the revolution — the fear, confusion, and excitement — as well as a closer look at the driving force behind the revolution: the Romanian people.
The production featured strong performances from both the students and hired actors. A playfully youthful Sarah Branch ‘17 played Lucia, a young woman who eventually marries and travels to America before returning to Romania. Somewhat self-absorbed and obsessed with America’s wonders, Lucia is an outsider when she returns and reconnects with a forlorn lover. Branch embodied Lucia every minute she was onstage, whether she was giddily fawning over her wedding dress or happily (and somewhat obnoxiously) passing out chocolate bars to the family she left behind.
Jaime Maseda, an actor hired to perform in the production, had the most consistently engrossing performance of the company. His endearing yet heart-wrenching portrayal of a young painter during the Romanian revolution was one of the highlights of the first act. While other actors are describing their memories of the Revolution, Maseda can still be seen silently telling a story with his eyes — immersed in his world, undistracted by the rest of the company.
Mad Forest’s world is shaped by the cast as they draw all over the chalkboard set designed by Matt Saunders to create different locales — from an elevator lounge to a hospital room. Actors draw diagrams on the chalkboard walls, mop up the chalk when they change locations, and draw doorways for actors to enter and exit. Torra said, “Design is a complicated thing and sometimes a play requires a real, realistic rendering of a space — like a kitchen, or a living room, or a hospital. This play only requires that in miniature.” Transitions between the play’s many settings are also facilitated by the sound of a horn that plays between discontinuities — signaling a change in space and, sometimes, even time.
Additionally, Laila Swanson’s costume design helped audiences navigate the 38 characters played by the company of 11. Each character had their own look, with costumes that enhanced and reflected each distinct personality.
The decision to put on Mad Forest was not a simple one. Torra read through quite a few plays before finally choosing Mad Forest. Because the production ensemble is a class as well as a production, the play Torra chose had to meet certain criteria. “It needs to have enough roles in it so that everyone feels like they’re getting a worthwhile experience out of it,” he Torra. “[It also] needs a little bit of ambition: to reach for something.”
Another factor in the selection process was Mad Forest’s relevance to events going on in the world today. “This is not unlike a lot of things that are going on in the world now,” said Torra. “There’s the Arab Spring and there’s stuff going on in the Ukraine and in Syria.”
Though the complex writing and structure left much of the audience with questions and confusion, the play’s relevance shines through to create a powerful piece of art. This chaos-induced confusion resonated with some audience members in unexpected ways. “I was really impressed by the wedding reception scene,” said Anthony Chiarenza ‘18. “It was such a beautiful representation of pure chaos; it was captivating in the oddest of ways!”
The true power of Mad Forest is that it is not just about the Romanian Revolution – it is far more about the people.
“Theater provides an opportunity for us to empathize with people in extreme states and extreme moments – to feel it for ourselves,” said Torra. “Though it may seem like it’s about something very far away, it’s actually about things that are very close to us. We will all go through incredibly large shifts in our lives, caused by massive events, and I think it’s a good thing for us to be reminded about what that feels like.”
For the Daily Gazette’s photo gallery of the production, click here.
Featured image by Martin Froger-Silva ’16/The Daily Gazette.