When art speaks truth, it hurts, and it never hurts so much as in
Mark Jackson's stylish new play The Forest War, which runs through
January 14 at the Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
Written and directed with imaginative flair, The Forest
War comes in the form of Japanese Kabuki theater, from the choreographed
stylized stage movements and tableaux, to Valera Coble's beautifully-textured
elaborate costumes, to Jackson's formalized, rhythmic dialogue.
It's a classic jidai geki, or Japanese period drama, addressing
themes that are timeless and in this case, all too familiar.
The Forest War of the title has been prosecuted by
the aging Grand Lord Karug, played by Drew Anderson, and after a
decade, the long battles have decimated the country and demoralized
its citizens. In theory, the war has been won, and Karug decides
to pass the leadership to the peaceable Lord Kulan (Cassidy Brown)
instead of his belligerent son, Lord Kain (Kevin Clarke). Thus the
stage is set for your classic father/son power struggle. Read into
it what you will.
President Bush -- sorry, I mean, Lord Kain -- believes that the
battle for the Great Oil Fields -- sorry, the Great Forest -- is
far from finished, and he angrily plots against the peace-loving
Bill Clinton -- that is, Lord Kulan who has set about rebuilding
the country, improving infrastructure and even -- horrors! -- appointing
a local medicine woman (read Jocelyn Elders) and taking political
counsel from his wife, Lady Ema, or if you like, Hillary.
Would you be surprised to learn that Lord Kulan's
downfall is a sexual peccadillo with a young courtesan, and that
the sword of state passes to Lord Kain, who invents the fiction
that their enemies have risen again and restarts The Forest War
with the help of General Mau Tant, i.e. Military-Industrial Complex?
Of course Jackson doesn't stick slavishly to the parallels -- although
it would be great to think of Chelsea Clinton stabbing Bush with
a paintbrush -- but it's close enough to make watching painful.
Painful, not because I disliked the production, but because I find
thinking about the war in Iraq extremely painful. I think we can
all agree that the Oil Field War looks like an epic and archetypal
story -- and maybe it really is just another incarnation of the
father-son struggle -- but it's difficult to watch the unfolding
of a blood-covered mythopoetic story whose real-life ending has
yet to be written.
All that aside, the Shotgun Players look comfortable
in the movement conventions that Jackson employs as a method of
defining the rich panoply of characters, similar to his use of biomechanics
in the 2003 Death of Meyerhold. Figures like the wild-haired Kain
and his militaristic general Mau Tant (Reid Davis) cut across the
space in aggressive diagonals, while Thu Tran's vacillating courtier
Lunnen sways in contrapposto stances. Tran also appears with Erin
Mei-Ling Stuart under heavy black veiling, as mystical movers of
the minimalist props and sets.
A coterie of peasant figures, including Carla Pantoja
as the clothmaker Madame Ajbi and Richard Reinholdt as the blacksmith
Morduk, are entertaining and adept as the working class, who, like
most of us plebes, are mainly caught up in the struggles of daily
life -- happy to gossip about court, but only reacting when the
fears and rumors affect them personally.
Providing expert and atmospheric accompaniment are
musicians Christopher Broderick and Daniel Bruno, who play a wide
range of instruments. And the scenic desig, by Melpomene Katakalos
and lighting by Heather Basarab are effective in their simplicity.
Two small pots of reeds stand in for a meadow, blood flows through
red ribbons and the spirits of the dead make ceremonious exits through
the back wall unfurling a white paper umbrella. It's a scale that
suits the limitations of a small theater troupe, but which also
comes off as understated tastefulness.
The biggest problem with The Forest War is that it's
too long. It's a bit of a challenge to sit on the Ashby Stage's
church pew seats for over two and a half hours. (As the company
raises money for their new solar powered theater project, maybe
a few dollars can go towards better seats.) Still, the imagery is
power-packed, and worthy of a story that looks like it will already
be the stuff of legend.