When art speaks truth, it hurts, and it never hurts so much as in Mark Jackson's stylish new play The Forest War, which runs through January 14 at the Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
Written and directed with imaginative flair, The Forest War comes in the form of Japanese Kabuki theater, from the choreographed stylized stage movements and tableaux, to Valera Coble's beautifully-textured elaborate costumes, to Jackson's formalized, rhythmic dialogue. It's a classic jidai geki, or Japanese period drama, addressing themes that are timeless and in this case, all too familiar.
The Forest War of the title has been prosecuted by the aging Grand Lord Karug, played by Drew Anderson, and after a decade, the long battles have decimated the country and demoralized its citizens. In theory, the war has been won, and Karug decides to pass the leadership to the peaceable Lord Kulan (Cassidy Brown) instead of his belligerent son, Lord Kain (Kevin Clarke). Thus the stage is set for your classic father/son power struggle. Read into it what you will.
President Bush -- sorry, I mean, Lord Kain -- believes that the battle for the Great Oil Fields -- sorry, the Great Forest -- is far from finished, and he angrily plots against the peace-loving Bill Clinton -- that is, Lord Kulan who has set about rebuilding the country, improving infrastructure and even -- horrors! -- appointing a local medicine woman (read Jocelyn Elders) and taking political counsel from his wife, Lady Ema, or if you like, Hillary.
Would you be surprised to learn that Lord Kulan's downfall is a sexual peccadillo with a young courtesan, and that the sword of state passes to Lord Kain, who invents the fiction that their enemies have risen again and restarts The Forest War with the help of General Mau Tant, i.e. Military-Industrial Complex?
Of course Jackson doesn't stick slavishly to the parallels -- although it would be great to think of Chelsea Clinton stabbing Bush with a paintbrush -- but it's close enough to make watching painful. Painful, not because I disliked the production, but because I find thinking about the war in Iraq extremely painful. I think we can all agree that the Oil Field War looks like an epic and archetypal story -- and maybe it really is just another incarnation of the father-son struggle -- but it's difficult to watch the unfolding of a blood-covered mythopoetic story whose real-life ending has yet to be written.
All that aside, the Shotgun Players look comfortable in the movement conventions that Jackson employs as a method of defining the rich panoply of characters, similar to his use of biomechanics in the 2003 Death of Meyerhold. Figures like the wild-haired Kain and his militaristic general Mau Tant (Reid Davis) cut across the space in aggressive diagonals, while Thu Tran's vacillating courtier Lunnen sways in contrapposto stances. Tran also appears with Erin Mei-Ling Stuart under heavy black veiling, as mystical movers of the minimalist props and sets.
A coterie of peasant figures, including Carla Pantoja as the clothmaker Madame Ajbi and Richard Reinholdt as the blacksmith Morduk, are entertaining and adept as the working class, who, like most of us plebes, are mainly caught up in the struggles of daily life -- happy to gossip about court, but only reacting when the fears and rumors affect them personally.
Providing expert and atmospheric accompaniment are musicians Christopher Broderick and Daniel Bruno, who play a wide range of instruments. And the scenic desig, by Melpomene Katakalos and lighting by Heather Basarab are effective in their simplicity. Two small pots of reeds stand in for a meadow, blood flows through red ribbons and the spirits of the dead make ceremonious exits through the back wall unfurling a white paper umbrella. It's a scale that suits the limitations of a small theater troupe, but which also comes off as understated tastefulness.
The biggest problem with The Forest War is that it's too long. It's a bit of a challenge to sit on the Ashby Stage's church pew seats for over two and a half hours. (As the company raises money for their new solar powered theater project, maybe a few dollars can go towards better seats.) Still, the imagery is power-packed, and worthy of a story that looks like it will already be the stuff of legend.
The Forest War continues through January 14 at the Ashby Stage. Get tickets and information (at shotgunplayers.org)