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San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2006


The land is foreign, the war familiar

-- By Robert Hurwitt

Bogus intelligence of enemy preparations. Charges of treason against
those who question the commander-in-chief. A pre-emptive war gone terribly

It's easy to see how certain current events inspired Mark Jackson to write "The Forest War," now in its world premiere at Ashby Stage. The influence of Shakespeare, Brecht and Akira Kurosawa is easily apparent as well.

But it's his use of Japanese theater techniques that infuses Jackson's Shotgun Players production with beauty, grace, passion, immediacy and moments
of dramatic power.

Written in 2003, just before he staged his outstanding "The Death of Meyerhold" for Shotgun, "War" is a dramatic meditation on male power structures, political chicanery, ill-fated love and war. That is, if anything staged with such passionate intensity can be called a meditation.

In many respects, Jackson's script is less impressive than what he does with it. Phrased in a purposefully archaic-sounding, high-blown romantic style, staged and performed in a strikingly stylized, kabuki- and noh-influenced manner and accompanied by Chris Broderick and Daniel Bruno's viscerally exciting percussion and winds score, "War" aspires to be a parable.

The action is set in an unnamed Asian kingdom at an unspecified time, though Valera Coble's sumptuous court robes eloquently evoke the samurai era of many Kurosawa films, as the white faces and exaggerated eyebrows of Rhonda Kerr's makeup evokes kabuki. Grand Lord Karug (a commandingly infirm but sharp Drew Anderson) has finally won the 10-year war for control of the great forest, a vital natural resource, and is ready to name a successor.

His son, Lord Kain (a ferociously edgy, impatient Kevin Clarke), is eager to complete the job of destroying the enemy his father only defeated. But Karug hands the reins to the more temperate and popular Lord Kulan (a solid, thoughtful Cassidy Brown), who rules in consultation with his wise, politic wife (a softly forceful Fontana Butterfield), who, some of the common people believe, would make a better president.

Sorry about that. Kulan reforms the people's welfare, appoints a sharp woman (a cynically realistic Anna Ishida) to improve the health system and restores prosperity, until he's brought down by a regrettable affair with Mita, not exactly an intern but a courtesan (a strongly focused, sensual Tonya Glanz). Then it's Kain's turn. Aided by a slyly demonic, smirking Reid Davis as the evil, arrogant secretary of defense -- well, something like that -- Kain destroys the economy, concocts a nonexistent threat, spreads rumors of impending attack and starts a war without adequate preparation.

There's also a lyrical ill-fated love story between Kulan's daughter (a radiant Caroline Hewitt) and a peasant artist (a sweetly composed Ryan Tasker) and scenes among the tradesmen (Carla Pantoja, Richard Reinholdt and a pert, young Lukas Ferreira), interspersed with more court intrigue and assassinations. Some of the writing is wordier than it need be; some is poetically spare and evocative. But Jackson's stagings keep the drama tense and magnetic.

As he demonstrated with "Meyerhold" and with Oscar Wilde's "Salome" at Aurora this fall, Jackson is a master of intensely stylized, physically based stagings in a variety of styles. Working on Melpomene Katakalos' pristinely stark, kabuki-ish set -- bathed in the serene and passionate glow of Heather Basarab's lights -- Jackson creates his own quasi-kabuki performance vocabulary.

Entrances and exits occur in sharply etched, sinuous patterns. Black-veiled stagehands, or kurogo (the deft Thu Tran and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) create eloquent, minimalist effects. The space between lovers' lips is charged with eroticism. Mita's execution is staged with heart-stopping simplicity. Each of the many deaths is a stroke of theatrical genius employing red scarves and stark white parasols -- an effect that builds to a stunning climax in the finale.

Some of the silences are more effective than anything else, as Jackson lets the import of his tale radiate from the troubled features of Glanz or Hewitt. It's when words fail that Jackson's "War" says the most.

The Forest War: Written and directed by Mark Jackson. (Through Jan. 14.
Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Two hours, 40
minutes. Tickets $30. Call (510) 841-6500 or visit

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