On December 16, 1989, a Hungarian pastor took a stand after being evicted by the communist government from the Hungarian Reformed Church in Timisoara, Romania. This event marked the beginning of the Romanian Revolution, serving as a catalyst for the violence to follow.
In 1990, Caryl Churchill, a British playwright, traveled to Romania in search of a story. What she found were ordinary people, damaged by the events preceding her visit. "Mad Forest" was born from the remnants of these people’s lives; a play written as a response to the horrors of 1989 Romania.
Set in Bucharest, "Mad Forest" by Caryl Churchill explores the complexity of perspectives surrounding the Romanian Revolution. This weekend, "Mad Forest" opens at the Weitzenhoffer Theatre, directed by Seth Gordon, OU School of Drama director.
“This is certainly one of the most dark shows that I've been a part of,” Sophie Losacco, a cast member and senior acting major, said. “It's most definitely a drama.”
Written in three acts, the plot encompasses fictional and nonfictional events from before, during and after the revolution, according to DC Theatre Scene. Jake Allen, a dramaturg on the production, said the structure of the play is part of what makes it unique.
“What's kind of special about this play of hers is the way the act structure is broken up,” Allen said. “The middle section of it consists of actual interviews from when she went to Romania in 1990 following the events of 1989 … The two acts around that are … fictionalized versions of what she assumes life to be like.”
Cast member Lucy Dismore, a senior acting major, said the tone of the plot is hard to encapsulate.
“The plot … is definitely one of a lot of gloom and apprehension and of waiting for something great to happen,” Dismore said. “And then maybe finding out that the great thing wasn't quite what you wanted.”
Auditions for Mad Forest were held last spring via self-tapes and Zoom due to COVID-19, Dismore said.
“It was a lot of setting up your cell phone in front of a blank wall in your house with a bunch of books stacked up,” Dismore said. “And then from there you cross your fingers and wait.”
Rehearsals started a week before school began. Since then, the cast has been rehearsing almost every day for several hours, Losacco said.
“Everyone comes into rehearsal on their A-game … ready to go,” Losacco said. “It's so refreshing and so inspiring to see that … We’ve all worked really hard.”
Losacco said that it is challenging to not Americanize the play.
“I think it's important for the audience to come in and understand that we are doing a play that is not from an Americanized perspective,” Losacco said. “This is a play written about Romania … it is not a play written about America coming to save Romania. (The context of revolution) is something that the American audience will never understand.”
Allen also said he wants audiences to see past political bias to understand the play.
“(Churchill) mentions in readings that it's not necessarily a play about Romania, but a play from Romania,” Allen said. “I think just coming in with a perspective that you'll be entering a political scenario that you're not familiar with, and to kind of embrace that and understand how that affects you.”
Madalina Furis, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at OU, was a 17-year-old high school student in Bucharest, Romania, during the revolution and was a part of the production of the play.
One of her main roles was to guide actors in their pronunciation of the Romanian language and in understanding their characters.
“For the actors and for everyone else involved in the play, it was important that they first of all understand the characters better,” Furis said. “They needed some background from someone who … lived through those days and had the age of the younger characters in the play.”
She said one of the things that was relevant in the play and in Romanians’ lives was the motivation people had to fight for what they believed in. She said she remembers the night of Dec. 21, one of the bloodiest nights of the time.
“My strongest memory, of course, was the memory of the cemetery that appeared overnight,” Furis said. “I mean over 1,000 people died, so there was a new cemetery in the city within a matter of days.”
She said the images she saw were unfiltered, unlike the dignified bodies that appear with a flag over a casket.
“Images weren’t edited on TV,” Furis said. “We got to see the bodies of the people that were courageous … That's an image that stuck with me for a very long time. The bodies thrown on top of each other in the morgue ... bullets in them.”
Furis said that although she thinks the play accurately portrays the different thoughts and attitudes that people had during that time, she is hesitant thinking about the effect it will have on an American audience.
“I think that maybe the writer was too ambitious, in some sense,” Furis said. “Romania is a small country, and (has) a small history ... It's not known in the United States. As a matter of fact, many people always confuse Bucharest with Budapest.”
Regardless, she said the play still has value in the university setting.
“(University theatre’s) mission is not to be Broadway,” Furis said. “Broadway has the role of appealing to the masses … University theatre is supposed to put valuable works at the forefront and educate people, including the students that are participating … We cannot only live with Shakespeare and call ourselves theatre lovers … I hope that (the play) will move audiences and participants alike into reading more history.”
Mad Forest will run at 8 p.m. on Sept. 24 and Sept. 30, and on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 at the Weitzenhoffer Theatre. It will run at 3 p.m. on Sept. 26 and Oct. 2 and 3.
“It's a great project for students to sink their teeth into, and it's something that I think audiences today will relate to and respond to based on experiences that we've had over the past few years,” Gordon said.