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San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 2006


The territory of The Forest War
And the world around it ...

-- By Robert Avila

Three years ago playwright-director Mark Jackson and the Shotgun Players teamed up to present The Death of Meyerhold, Jackson's devilishly imaginative and ambitious distillation of the revolutionary life, work, and world of Russian theater innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold. A remarkable success, Meyerhold was easily among the top three world premieres of the season and flagged Jackson, artistic director of Art Street Theatre (1995–2004), as an up-and-coming innovator in his own right.

Since then, Art Street Theatre has, according to its Web site, "put its producing activities on hiatus," but Jackson (like his AST colleagues, with whom he continues to collaborate) has kept busy on a freelance basis, recently with his roundly lauded version of Oscar Wilde's Salome for Berkeley's Aurora Theatre and currently with his own play, The Forest War. The latter marks his second collaboration with Shotgun, and its powerful, graceful debut suggests Meyerhold's chemistry was no fluke.

The play opens on the court of an ancient Asiatic kingdom at the cessation of a long war for control of a precious natural resource, namely, the economically indispensable forest. Having led his clan to a hard-won victory, the aging Lord Karug (Drew Anderson) takes the precaution of passing the mantle of state power over the head of his own bellicose and power-hungry son, Lord Kain (Kevin Clarke), and onto the irenic shoulders of Kulan (Cassidy Brown), popular with the populace as a just lord with humble roots in tilled soil. This sets Kain scheming — with the aid of his ally General Mau Tant (Reid Davis) — to take by stealth what he feels should be his by right. Kain's machinations temporarily trade martial ferocity for the opportunities offered by marital infidelity, as a palace intrigue — devoted family man Kulan's secret liaison with Karug's courtesan (Tonya Glanz) — becomes the basis of a public campaign to topple his rival.

This Shakespearean plotline comes refracted startlingly, Akira Kurosawa–style, through a highly stylized lens — a fairly stunning mise-en-sc?ne that astutely combines elements of Kabuki and Noh theater into a visual banquet with a palpitating dramatic energy behind it, all operating with a precise economy of movement, gesture, and sign. The story features other familiar-sounding details of war and peace — from the health care reform instigated under Kulan to Kain's manipulation of intelligence and ill-considered war preparations. No matter how stylized or abstract the setting, there's no missing the contemporary forest for these ancient trees. A whole set of secondary characters, moreover, as well as a parallel affair between Kulan's daughter (Caroline Hewitt) and a poor artist (Ryan Tasker), flesh out the link between the common people and their turbulent leaders. Jackson directs his actors beautifully, extracting performances from Brown, Tasker, Hewitt, and Clarke, in particular, that ...breathe individually and expansively inside the productively strict choreography and caricature demanded.

If its vaguely two-party politics strike one as ultimately less sophisticated than its aesthetic vision, The Forest War still potently registers the anxiety of the times. And maybe, specifically, anxiety around our sense of time, in a world whose constantly increasing pace seems to both flatten time into an ever-uprooted, disconnected present and reinforce a by-now-inescapable fear of time running itself out completely.

But in the realm of theater, the world that engulfs the characters onstage is also the ground of hope, where the audience, at least, remains to imagine new possibilities emerging from the charred landscape of runaway greed and war.


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