Revolution has come to Bucharest, and a society has exploded into shards. A multitude of writhing, flailing, falling bodies fills the screen during the climax of the second act of Ashley Tata’s fervently inventive new streaming version of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” a coproduction of Theater for a New Audience and the Fisher Center at Bard College.
This is not, however, your average mob scene. Each of the participants in this upheaval — and there are a dozen, to be exact, though they feel like many more — is isolated in one of those separate, self-contained frames many of us now identify with Zoom conferences.
They all seem to share an astonishment, mixed with elation and terror, at the chaos that has descended upon what had been a rigidly regimented world. One is locked in a self-stranglehold; another appears to be wiping the window of the lens that separates us, trying to get a clear view; others claw the air and scream silently, while yet another would seem to be vogueing.
While these achingly young-looking people are all responding to the same cataclysmic events, their reactions are so isolatingly different. It has seldom felt lonelier in a crowd.
The cast of this streamlined, Zoom-formatted version of Churchill’s 1990 play — a portrait of Romania before and after the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in December 1989 — is made up of college students in the Bard Theater and Performance Program. (The production will be streamed again on Sunday at 5 p.m. and Wednesday at 3 p.m., via tfana.org.) And as they deploy their varied, idiosyncratic gestures, you can imagine the workshop improvisation from which they sprang.
It’s a style of performance that might come across as embarrassingly earnest on a stage. But in this context, all that quirky, mismatched intensity felt deeply moving. The cast members were portraying witnesses to and participants in the Bucharest uprising who had been interviewed by Churchill, the director Mark Wing-Davey and a team of 10 acting students shortly after those events occurred.
The part of “Mad Forest” shaped from those interviews evolved from Churchill, her team and their subjects trying to make sense of something that seemed to make no sense at all. Now, some 30 years later, a group of students — roughly the same age as many of the scene’s characters — is trying to make personal, individual sense of the same material.
“Mad Forest” — seen in Manhattan in a New York Theater Workshop production in 1991 — has always been about the difficulties of translation, in several ways. And be warned, this mixture of documentary, domestic and surreal drama can feel bewildering even in conventional stagings.
Each of the scenes in the first and third acts — portraying the fictional stories of two Romanian families of different classes — is preceded by a guidebook-like sentence spoken in Romanian and then in English. So you are always aware of “Mad Forest” occurring through various filters of interpretation, as it confronts an elusive, very tangled reality. (The title comes from a description of the woodland where Bucharest was built that “was impenetrable to the foreigner who did not know its paths.”)
Tata’s version — which achieved its present form when the stage production in rehearsal had to be canceled because of the pandemic — adds still another layer of interpretive tools and filters. Each of the performances, by actors sheltering in place in different locations, is occurring separately. It’s only the inspired work of the technical team that creates the illusion of their inhabiting the same space.
The conjured landscapes include both urban streetscapes and countryside idylls; claustrophobically cozy apartments and hospital corridors. They have been summoned via green screens and projections under the supervision of Afsoon Pajoufar (sets), Abigail-Hoke Brady (lighting) and Eamonn Farrell (video). Just as startling is the meticulous choreography of the ensemble (by Daniel Safer, with nerve-scraping music and sound by Paul Pinto). Money seems to change hands between an abortion provider and his client in adjacent frames, a vampire bites a dog, a ghost visits a nurse in a hospital, and a wedding erupts into a body-slamming free-for-all.
The acting, for the most part, is emotionally direct and lucid. Though Asta Bennie Hostetter has provided culturally appropriate costumes, there has been little attempt to create fully formed characters, belonging to a specific time and place. (I particularly enjoyed Charlie Wood’s faith-hungry priest and Ali Kane’s slyly selfish young woman.) Instead, we watch the process of young people grappling with a dense and knotty play about a dense and knotty moment in history.
It was a moment that shattered a nation still reckoning, in the play’s third act, with what happened and wondering whether it has emerged any better off. Though I had expected this video-driven production to capture the paranoia of a surveillance state, I’ve seen that aspect of the play more effectively rendered in live performance.
What registers here so poignantly is the feeling of a fragmented world, of stranded people striving for connection and understanding. The technical glitches that befell this “Mad Forest” when I watched it on Friday night — frozen screens and unintentional loops — felt of a part with a work that is all about struggle, amid obstacles historic and artistic.