Bogus intelligence of enemy preparations. Charges of treason against
those who question the commander-in-chief. A pre-emptive war gone
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
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
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,
minutes. Tickets $30. Call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.)