Playwright and director Mark Jackson’s Asian-flavored The Forest War is very much rooted in the idea of place, and how it affects human interaction. The action recalls the claustrophobia of those Japanese historical dramas in which the intrigues pile up between paper walls. The forest itself is another presence, although we never see it, providing wood for homes, boats, and fuel. Finally there is the meadow, the buffer between the town’s rules and restrictions and the lawlessness of the forest. The soil of the meadow is soaked with blood and secrets; it’s the place where people are most likely to give vent to their deepest longings, whether for love or dominion.
The story is a mashup of anime, King Lear, and the nightly news. After winning a grueling war to see who gets control of the life-giving forest, aged Lord Kurag passed the ceremonial sword to a younger man. Conflict arises when that man turns out to be not Kain, Kurag’s volatile son, but Kulan, a nobleman with dirt under his nails. Kain sets out to discredit the peace-loving Kulan, and things take a Clintonian turn. As well intentioned as Kulan is, can he possibly outmaneuver the Byzantine Kain — and his own indiscretions?
These intrigues and longings are expressed in a very physically stylized and specific fashion, from the way the actors neatly hold their hands near their bodies’ centers — in Japanese culture, the point from which one’s power emanates — to the sideways exits the nobles make, never turning their backs to the audience. The kissing also is about as abstract as you can get, which will strike audiences as looking either really cool, or make them wonder whether the actors are worried about smearing their makeup.
Which makes this Kevin Clarke’s show. Trained as a dancer, Clarke also is an original member of Jackson’s Art Street Theatre. As the villainous Kain, he has not only tremendous physical control, but he and Jackson have the shorthand that develops between longtime collaborators. He also seems to be the most at ease with the language, but that may be because as the bad guy, his speeches are shorter and less platitude-heavy than those of the “good” ones. Kain is a far cry from the frenetic Shostakovich Clarke played in Shotgun’s Death of Meyerhold a few years back, but every bit as intense.
It’s a credit to Jackson’s direction that the ensemble is tighter than tends to happen in Shotgun shows of this size, but there are still standouts. Ryan Tasker as the painter Olan takes on a new kind of role in his debut appearance with Shotgun. Tasker’s East Bay appearances lately have been with theatre Q, playing a series of lovable but shy nebbishes; while he’s done a sweet job of it, it’s nice to see him play a character with a little more self-confidence. To him falls the line “If I wake in the night to howls, I will know it is the wolves and not my mother crying for her husband,” and he brings an unexpected dignity and presence to the role. With fellow Shotgun newbie Thu Tran, he has the impish sideways glance down cold.
It’s also nice to see some old-timers return, particularly the broadly comic Richard Reinholdt as a drunken swordsmith and the sorely missed Reid Davis as General Mau Tant. Fontana Butterfield has one of the play’s rawest moments, and delivers the simplest, most direct line in the whole work perfectly.
This is an opulent show by Shotgun standards, from the elaborate pan-Asian costuming to the live music, which includes timpani, chimes, and shakuhachi. The set is minimal, with images filled out by the graceful veiled assistants who move around bits of furniture and plant life to create interior and exterior spaces. These kurogo make things possible that would not be otherwise, such as helping an actor maintain an extreme body angle, or creating the effect of spouting blood or fire.
Jackson is marrying traditions that usually see little of each other. Although The Forest War was developed at ACT, it could have stood another round of workshopping so that powerful statements like “Peace is just a moment’s pause for aim” could be shorn of the longish speeches that cloak them. Sometimes the language moves beyond heightened into impenetrable, making for a cerebral product that can be difficult to connect with emotionally. Perhaps this is the way it is in the Asian theater forms Jackson is mining, but American audiences, raised on more realism and less exposition, may find the going difficult. Having the characters reiterating who they are and what’s going on hurts the pacing. Physically, the effect would be more convincing were the actors more deeply rooted in the tradition and training that Jackson is referencing.
That said, this is a gutsy show, and some of the issues that hampered its opening week — pacing, overloud music, actor difficulty with the unusually challenging blocking — may have resolved now that it’s been up for a while. As awkward as it is in places, there’s no question that it’s beautiful and powerful. Jackson has an eye for the show-ending image, and his Forest War is a bold undertaking that uses ancient forms to tell a modern story of love, politics, and needless bloodshed.