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Berkeley Daily Planet, December 15, 2006


The Theater: Shotgun Players Bring ‘The Forest War’ to Ashby Stage

-- By Ken Bullock

At the outset of The Forest War, Mark Jackson’s new play (which he also directs), produced by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, a doddering old Grand Lord Karug (Drew Anderson) and his retinue slide out onto the stage, facing the audience, in an impression of Kabuki.

The ancient lord announces he is relinquishing his office, something like the opening scene of King Lear (or the echo in Kurosawa’s Ran)—but not to his own son Kain (Kevin Clarke), the impetuous warrior. Instead, he hands over the reins (actually, the blade, sheathed) of command to another lord, Kulan (Cassidy Brown), a farmer and idealist, an aristocrat close to the people (shades of Thomas Jefferson!), a leader for a time of peace after a decade of war.

Lord Kulan appoints his dignified wife, Lady Ema (Fontana Butterfield), as a minister to the common good, ombudsman for the voiceless. Lord Kain and General Mau Tant (Reid Davis)—a good team of villains out of an old potboiler—disgusted at the talk of peace and the ascendancy of a woman, start plotting mischief.

Meanwhile, The People (as represented by a a cloth merchant, her son the painter, a child of the village, a drunken swordsmith and an herbalist called to the capital by Lord Kulan to be court physician, played by Carla Pantoja, Ryan Tasker, Lukas Ferreira, Richard Reinholdt and Anna Ishida), are glad the long war is over and that trusted Kulan is in command—but the gladness is expressed with the reserve of folk wisdom. The common lot is portrayed by a reflection of the Chinese Operatic look (not its style) familiar from American productions of Brecht.

But the moral Lord Kulan has feet of clay. General Mau Tant spots him in a tryst with the old Grand Lord’s youngest concubine (Tonya Glanz) in the same meadow the painter has rendered over and over with his brush, and scandal grips the court. Later, Kulan and Ema’s daughter Ange (Caroline Hewitt) will also entertain a secret love in the meadow, and Lord Kain will further pursue his “National Security State” scheme with more trickery designed to reignite the Forest War of the title. The mood throughout darkens to one of foreboding of catastrophe, a sense of helplessness and betrayal on all sides.

The Forest War fits in neatly in look—and outlook—with Shotgun’s last two plays, Ragnarok and Love is a Dream House in Lorin, Shotgun’s first two commissions. All are like fables or folktales that reflect contemporary events, done in a storybook style, The Forest War is a kind of Kabuki woodblock print done in Anime. In fact, there are Anime cartoon drawings in the lobby and in the program.

Melpomene Katakalos’ set gives the sense of the bare boards of the Kabuki stage (across which skitter kurogos Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Thu Tran, the “invisible” veiled stage assistants) with big shoji screens at back, and Valera Coble’s costumes are exotic with a dash of post-punk in some of Rhonda Kerr’s make-up, like Lord Kain’s hair. The players are well-cast, if a little restrained by the imitation of stylization, but with good presence and turns by Richard Reinholdt, Ryan Tasker, Thu Tran (as Mot) and Tonya Glanz in particular. Two talented musicians, Chris Broderick on winds and Daniel Bruno on drums (both on percussion) accompany the action—and indeed lend much in dynamics to it—taking their sound from various forms associated with Kabuki, Taiko and Gagaku.

The overall effect, in different aspect from the last two plays, but very much in line with what seems to be a developing house style for Shotgun, is of a pageant, less stylized theater than storybook illustrations of it, promising a kind of contemporary fabulousness that goes back to the 18th-century sources of much of Brecht and modern epic theater: talking about the present situation by referring to what’s far away in time or space, like what Montesquieu did stylistically with The Persian Letters to signify the dislocations of French society of his day by describing imaginary goings-on in the exotic East.

The play itself, though, is a curious blend, a fable without satire or irony (unless of the Alanis Morissette variety), a faux folktale without much relation to even urban myth, an impression of Asian theater without much stylization beyond a look-at-the-pictures illustrational sense. There are a few attempts at stylization with varying success: the execution of the too-honest courtesan is played simply and well, with a sense of humans being shifted around like dolls (though usually Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls); a recurring riff of dead characters shuffling backwards offstage holding white parasols (to a land where the sun don’t shine?) becomes increasingly awkward in its made-up schematism. Combined with the sometimes-fortune cookie diction of the dialogue, the neat storybook look begins to take on the qualities of the label on a Top Ramen package, “Oriental Flavor.”

Mark Jackson, who seems to be fascinated by ingenuous characters who get into trouble by searching for something forbidden (to paraphrase Mort Sahl on Robert Redford, he wants to explore the dark side of Frank Capra—a shared trait with Steven Spielberg?), continues his pursuit of the stylized in theater, but something’s missing, or at least misplaced. I remember a teacher of Noh, after a stage adaptation of Greek tragedy featuring what was touted as Asian stylization, remarking that without the rigorous technique and dramaturgy of the old theaters, all a contemporary director could do would be to try to imitate the air of intensity that was attractive in the original.

But the poetry—and therefore the true moral—gets lost in the process of a culinary reduction. The cover of the program gives the quote: “What is justice that it does not count love among its laws?” But what is the heart of the matter to be explored, and what really is the matter, is in what Grand Lord Karug says as a cautionary prescription at the outset of the play: “If we now have peace, it’s because we’ve forgotten why for so long we didn’t have peace.”

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