Last February’s revolution in Egypt is older news to us now than the Romanian Revolution of 1989 was when Mad Forest—postmodern British playwright Caryl Churchill’s dense, impressionistic portrait of that fast-flowering event—saw its first performance in the summer of 1990. The product of two working visits Churchill and director Mark Wing-Davey made to Romania in the months after the lickety-split trial and execution of despot Nicolae Ceauşescu, the sprawling piece captures the bedlam and the boredom of a society in rapid, violent upheaval.
Mad Forest’s first and third acts report the changeably sad fortunes of two households whose workaday struggles seem barely affected by regime change: Democracy won’t make you any happier to learn that your daughter wants to marry an American, or that she’s sleeping with a Hungarian. It won’t even necessarily make an abortion easier for her to procure.
The middle bit is an overlapping oral history of the bloody days leading up to Christmas 1989, presumably drawn from interviews by Churchill and about 50 students from two drama schools—one British, one Romanian—who assisted her during March 1990 research trips. Lighting designer Paul Frydrychowski turns the wattage way up for this direct-address interlude, signaling our stopover in documentary territory.
Save for the absence of social media, that oft-cited fertilizer of the Arab Spring, Mad Forest feels contemporary. To its credit, Forum Theatre’s earnest, beautifully acted staging retains the rickety quality those early productions must’ve had, despite its abundant craft: There are long (loooong), ornately choreographed dancing and fighting sequences; in the wedding that comprises most of Act 3, the former degenerates into the latter, suggesting that in the new Romania, chaos has supplanted terror. An earlier, more economical scene—wherein Alexander Strain’s art student casually discloses he’s reported on his mom (Rose McConnell) for her declarations of loyalty under the now-deposed Ceauşescu—makes much the same point more quietly and effectively.
Paradoxically, Churchill’s diversions into surrealism, like a negotiation between a dog and a vampire (Ashley Ivey, bringing a menace equal to but different from his other roles as a priest and as spy-recruiter), are often clearer than the more naturalistic stretches, where even after nearly three hours, some relationships remain opaque. Dana Levanovsky and Mark Halpern manage to stand out as two onetime lovers whose long-term happiness isn’t in the cards. Director Michael Dove’s in-the-round staging gives the piece a more immersive and panoramic feeling than a more traditional stage-plot would offer, but also forces us to look at actors’ backs for much of the first act, muddying the basic arithmetic of who’s-who. You’re asking your audience to spend three humorless hours with you in Communist and post-Communist Romania. Maybe throw them a lifeline where you can?