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.