“People aren’t evil and people aren’t good. They live how they can one day at a time. They come out of dust, they go back to dust, dusty feet, no wings, and whose fault is that?”
– Caryl Churchill
This semester, the SUNY New Paltz department of theatre arts put on the timely and politically charged show, “Mad Forest: A Play from Romania” by British playwright Caryl Churchill. The production directed by assistant professor Catherine Doherty showcased a rotating cast of 14 actors sometimes playing up to six characters. She enacted the concept of a Greek chorus in which the actors, not involved in certain scenes, sat around the stage and witnessed the action among the commoners.
In the playbill, the director described 1989 as “a seismic year for revolution.” She referenced the uprisings at Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Romanian Revolution, the setting of “Mad Forest.” The play enlightens 21st-century Americans unaware of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal dictatorship and the Hungarian pastor who sparked a rebellion by speaking out against him.
“It was very timely for us to be able to do the show and for me personally and professionally to explore the play in this election season,” Doherty said.
According to Doherty’s director’s note, only a couple of months following the fall of Ceausescu, Churchill, director Mark Wing Davey and 10 of his acting students from the United Kingdom traveled to Romania to examine a nation in the aftermath of revolution. Together they created this production based on their communication with Romanian citizens.
“For us to have an opportunity where students are working on a project that was generated by students working on a project was very exciting,” Doherty said, regarding the diverse, all-student cast and crew for the Mainstage production.
Doherty said a significant number of students auditioned for “Mad Forest” alongside the spring musical, “Oklahoma.” The mixture featured students singing songs from the golden age and others reciting contemporary dramatic monologues. Doherty admitted that when casting, the director is not necessarily searching for specifics, but rather someone who can identify with the material.
Roughly 30 students were called back. They participated in improvisation exercises to test their physical acting abilities. Doherty said that a lot of the scenes in the play are action driven, sans dialogue.
A striking moment in the show depicts the disheveled actors slumping in line for meat after hours of waiting until one of them quietly utters, “Down with Ceausescu.” In the callbacks they explored how standing in line for hours would look.
The Romanian setting also has a surreal element to it with a dog played by a human and the mystical appearances of an angel and a vampire. All the while, a mural of the brutal dictator and his wife loomed in the background. Fourth-year English major Monique Tranchina attended the show’s second performance on Friday, Sept. 30. The nonlinear storytelling approach kept her alert enough to follow the multiple stories within the play.
“I was shocked by such a big event in world history, the Romanian Revolution, which I wasn’t aware of,” Tranchina said. “The play helped me to understand historical events with a fictionalized storyline, much like ‘Les Miserables.’”
“Mad Forest” will continue to entertain and inform theatergoers in Parker Theatre from Oct. 13 through Oct. 16.