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, December 14, 2006


Shotgun stirs up politics, passion

-- By Chad Jones

The last time Shotgun Players and writer/director Mark Jackson teamed up, the result was 2003's "The Death of Meyerhold," one of the most bracing new works to come out of the Bay Area in some time.

As Jackson once again demonstrated in the Aurora Theatre Company's season-opening "Salome," his is a distinctively theatrical voice that combines intelligence, emotion and high-minded aesthetics.

In "The Forest War," Jackson's latest collaboration with Shotgun at Berkeley's Ashby Stage, we get all of the above and a whole lot more.
While not as gripping or as exciting as "Meyerhold," "The Forest War" is full of pleasures both visceral and intellectual.

Like a violent bedtime story for grownups, "Forest" mixes elements of Asian theater — Kabuki most notably — in which form is as important as content.
Set on a mostly bare stage (design by Melpomene Katakalos), Jackson has his white-faced, kimono-clad actors (costumes by Valera Coble) address the audience directly. When not speaking, the actors hold a formal pose, with their palms against the tops of their thighs.

It's all very stylized and choreographed, and Jackson's dialogue is clipped and simplistic — almost like subtitles in a Japanese film. This all takes some getting used to, but once we're in the world of the story — some unnamed Asian kingdom of indeterminate historical period — it works.

Well, mostly it works. At more than 2 1/2hours, "Forest" and all its rigid style becomes wearisome. And sometimes the movement is so serious it's silly, as when people exit the stage by doing a sideways crab walk that makes actors look like vaudevillians who should be tipping their hats and going, "Yadda yadda da da daaaaa."

That's not to say "The Forest War" is without a sense of humor — there are genuine laughs — but Jackson is out to tell a serious story of power and politics. It's just that sometimes, the style interferes with the pulpy pleasures of pure plot pyrotechnics.

And boy, does Jackson have a lot of plot. Without pushing the whole parable thing too far, he gives us a Lear-like leader (Drew Anderson) stepping down after a grueling 10-year war. Instead of handing his crown to his bellicose son, Lord Kain (Kevin Clarke), he gives it to the gentler (and smarter) Lord Kulan (Cassidy Brown).

During the long war, the country has lost the faith of its people, and it's up to Kulan to restore their pride and give them hope for peace and prosperity.
Unfortunately, Kulan (who may come from the Arkansas-like part of this kingdom) gets involved with a courtesan (Tonya Glanz) and, what's worse, gets caught, thus shaming his powerful wife (Fontana Butterfield) and daughter (Caroline Hewitt).
Lord Kain and his chief war lord (Reid Davis as Gen. Mau Tant) seize power and immediately launch into the politics of fearmongering to get the kingdom back into war (hmmmm — Kain must be from the Texas-like part of the country).

The interesting thing here is not the direct parallels to our own political turmoil but the issue of leadership: what is more immoral — a lie involving sex or a blood lust that costs a country money and citizens' lives?

There are intersecting sub-plots involving ordinary citizens — their fears, their love of gossip, their faith in art — but they don't quite come across.

The most dazzling aspect of the show isn't even on the stage — it's off stage left. That's where musicians Daniel Bruno, a drummer and percussionist, and Chris Broderick, a woodwinds player and percussionist, create some beautiful noise. Using more than a dozen instruments, their pulsating contribution to the show is often more dramatic than what's actually happening onstage.

With Bruno and Broderick's music combined with some of Jackson's striking stage pictures, "The Forest War" becomes less like ambitious, ultimately pretentious theater and more like live-action anime with a political agenda.

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