KPBS AIRDATE: November 26, 1997
If you’re feeling a little constrained and constricted by family obligations as the holiday season begins, consider going to the theater to experience some real confinement and oppression. One current offering is historical and the other is fictional, but they’ll both make you feel incredibly unfettered and free. Guaranteed. “Mad Forest” is set before, during and after the Romanian revolution in 1989; “Beirut” takes place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the not-too-distant future.
In Alan Bowne’s play, Beirut is a metaphor for an iron-fisted totalitarian state. New York was always pretty brutal, but this is a particularly ferocious time. A time of a killer-plague, when those who test “blood-positive” are branded with a giant ‘P’ on their butts, and they’re quarantined. Outside, sex is a capital crime and there are “sex detectors” everywhere.
Blue can’t survive in this lonely, dying world; she’d rather risk death than live without love. So she sneaks into the claustrophobic quarantine area where Torch is being held, just to sleep with him, to be infected by him, to die with him. He, however, adamantly refuses to kill her with kindness.
The playwright himself succumbed to AIDS in 1991. His 1985 play is one twisted and perverse love story. It is also ruthlessly violent and profoundly disturbing. This is the third time in two years that this piece has been presented in San Diego; it gets harder to watch every time. In this presentation by Misfit Productions, there is plenty of rage but little affection. Chad Allen Stutz plays a solid hour of anger; Sami Balangue, who’s gorgeous and sexy, manages to be both hard-headed and soft-hearted.
Bowne’s hostile diatribes are no lovesong to ladies; his language is coarse and brutish. But how much more potent the production would be if it played against that sometimes, so we believed Torch cared for Blue, and didn’t just knock her around and smash her to the ground because he hates “bitches” in general. If this play takes the AIDS crisis to its ultimate extreme, it does the same for our current misguided entwining of sex and violence. The intense and relentless barbarity makes it difficult to contemplate the underlying theme of what you’d do for love.
Love takes many different forms in Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest” — from furtive romance to family fealty to blind patriotism. In its episodic structure, it follows two households through two weddings and a murderous revolution. Churchill has her usual political edge, but she does try to represent almost every stratum of a society that nearly drowned in a savage bloodbath, while the other Soviet puppet governments of Eastern Europe fell in relative peace. The monstrous Ceausescus were executed, but incredibly, a free election in 1990 voted in a former member of the Old Guard and inner circle.
Although choppy and didactic at times, with more exposition than action, the play confronts loyalty — both personal and political — and the struggle to maintain some sense of morality in the face of soul-stifling suppression. Under Anne Kauffman’s unflinching and imaginative direction, the cast of eleven forms a deft and skillful ensemble. The scenic, lighting and sound design are artfully spare and evocative. But the production runs long; Churchill’s messages are sometimes redundant, sometimes arcane. Yet, if you like politics and history, human nature and non-traditional theater, I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening — and you get all this for only five bucks.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.