Playwright and director Mark Jackson's Asian-flavored The Forest
War is very much rooted in the idea of place, and how it affects
human interaction. The action recalls the claustrophobia of those
Japanese historical dramas in which the intrigues pile up between
paper walls. The forest itself is another presence, although we
never see it, providing wood for homes, boats, and fuel. Finally
there is the meadow, the buffer between the town's rules and restrictions
and the lawlessness of the forest. The soil of the meadow is soaked
with blood and secrets; it's the place where people are most likely
to give vent to their deepest longings, whether for love or dominion.
The story is a mashup of anime, King Lear, and the
nightly news. After winning a grueling war to see who gets control
of the life-giving forest, aged Lord Kurag passed the ceremonial
sword to a younger man. Conflict arises when that man turns out
to be not Kain, Kurag's volatile son, but Kulan, a nobleman with
dirt under his nails. Kain sets out to discredit the peace-loving
Kulan, and things take a Clintonian turn. As well intentioned as
Kulan is, can he possibly outmaneuver the Byzantine Kain —
and his own indiscretions?
These intrigues and longings are expressed in a very
physically stylized and specific fashion, from the way the actors
neatly hold their hands near their bodies' centers — in Japanese
culture, the point from which one's power emanates — to the
sideways exits the nobles make, never turning their backs to the
audience. The kissing also is about as abstract as you can get,
which will strike audiences as looking either really cool, or make
them wonder whether the actors are worried about smearing their
Which makes this Kevin Clarke's show. Trained as a
dancer, Clarke also is an original member of Jackson's Art Street
Theatre. As the villainous Kain, he has not only tremendous physical
control, but he and Jackson have the shorthand that develops between
longtime collaborators. He also seems to be the most at ease with
the language, but that may be because as the bad guy, his speeches
are shorter and less platitude-heavy than those of the "good"
ones. Kain is a far cry from the frenetic Shostakovich Clarke played
in Shotgun's Death of Meyerhold a few years back, but every bit
It's a credit to Jackson's direction that the ensemble
is tighter than tends to happen in Shotgun shows of this size, but
there are still standouts. Ryan Tasker as the painter Olan takes
on a new kind of role in his debut appearance with Shotgun. Tasker's
East Bay appearances lately have been with theatre Q, playing a
series of lovable but shy nebbishes; while he's done a sweet job
of it, it's nice to see him play a character with a little more
self-confidence. To him falls the line "If I wake in the night
to howls, I will know it is the wolves and not my mother crying
for her husband," and he brings an unexpected dignity and presence
to the role. With fellow Shotgun newbie Thu Tran, he has the impish
sideways glance down cold.
It's also nice to see some old-timers return, particularly
the broadly comic Richard Reinholdt as a drunken swordsmith and
the sorely missed Reid Davis as General Mau Tant. Fontana Butterfield
has one of the play's rawest moments, and delivers the simplest,
most direct line in the whole work perfectly.
This is an opulent show by Shotgun standards, from
the elaborate pan-Asian costuming to the live music, which includes
timpani, chimes, and shakuhachi. The set is minimal, with images
filled out by the graceful veiled assistants who move around bits
of furniture and plant life to create interior and exterior spaces.
These kurogo make things possible that would not be otherwise, such
as helping an actor maintain an extreme body angle, or creating
the effect of spouting blood or fire.
Jackson is marrying traditions that usually see little
of each other. Although The Forest War was developed at ACT, it
could have stood another round of workshopping so that powerful
statements like "Peace is just a moment's pause for aim"
could be shorn of the longish speeches that cloak them. Sometimes
the language moves beyond heightened into impenetrable, making for
a cerebral product that can be difficult to connect with emotionally.
Perhaps this is the way it is in the Asian theater forms Jackson
is mining, but American audiences, raised on more realism and less
exposition, may find the going difficult. Having the characters
reiterating who they are and what's going on hurts the pacing. Physically,
the effect would be more convincing were the actors more deeply
rooted in the tradition and training that Jackson is referencing.
That said, this is a gutsy show, and some of the issues
that hampered its opening week — pacing, overloud music, actor
difficulty with the unusually challenging blocking — may have
resolved now that it's been up for a while. As awkward as it is
in places, there's no question that it's beautiful and powerful.
Jackson has an eye for the show-ending image, and his Forest War
is a bold undertaking that uses ancient forms to tell a modern story
of love, politics, and needless bloodshed.