Shotgun Players' latest production might help make sense of this paradox, for playwright-director Mark Jackson's The Forest War weaves a tale that's as old as the trees and still somehow feels like a spring sapling. Set in the ancient Asiatic fiefdom of the Grand Lord Karug following his successful military campaign against the enemy Vohakta tribe to wrestle ownership of the Great Forest (an important source of fuel and lumber), Jackson's consuming, epic narrative of war, governance, and love sets two opposing worldviews against one another: The community-minded nobleman Lord Kulan wishes to promote peace and rebuild his battle-scarred country, while Lord Kain, the son of Karug, is all for continuing the fight until every single Vohak is dead. By unexpectedly abdicating his throne to Kulan instead of his own progeny, the elderly Karug hopes to help his war-torn nation find firm footing once again. But illicit passions, covert strategies, and betrayal conspire almost immediately to undermine the fragile harmony.
Sound familiar? We've seen The Forest War a thousand times before in other guises. My familiarity sensors were working overtime as I sat watching the play the other night. The grand sweep of the narrative, with its struggling factions, brings everything from the Iliad and the Mahabharata to Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings to mind. Even the characters' names sound like life forms you'd encounter on Tatooine or Endor. It's as if Shakespeare were performing Jedi mind tricks on Jackson's writing. Aspects of the characters' personalities and actions bring counterparts from the Bard's dramas particularly the "Henriad" history plays to mind. There's a little of Prince Hal in Kulan, Richard II in Karug, and Hotspur in Kaine. The Forest War's mixture of high- and low-caste types also echoes the Henriad's blending of kings and commoners. Even the opening statement "With this new sun, we greet a long awaited peace" echoes the first line of King Richard III ("Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York") both in imagery and sentiment. Famous tropes from Greek tragedy similarly find their way into Jackson's narrative. Sympathetic characters are marred with "fatal flaws," and the play's final act of vengeance is preceded by the presentation of a "treacherous gift" à la Medea.
The themes in The Forest War are so universal that they're ingrained in our subconscious. Part of the play's strength lies in its ability to activate our powers of recognition, though Jackson occasionally goes too far with familiarity. The parallels between American political history and The Forest War's story of an essentially virtuous leader whose dalliance with a subordinate leads to a regime change and a crusade (helmed by the bloodthirsty son of a former ruler) to gain control over natural resources need not be spelled out. And yet it's virtually impossible to sit through Jackson's production without seeing visions of the Bushes, the Clintons, the so-called "War on Terror," and even Monica Lewinsky dancing before our eyes. Which brings me to the second half of our inquiry: To engage us, a familiar story has to be well told. We should feel like we're hearing it for the first time. The only reason Jackson gets away with his heavy-handed allegory is because he's such a compelling storyteller.
Jackson drives his epic plot along with prose that's as muscular as it is bewitching. Swaggering political speeches melt into lines of lyrical sweetness. The phrase "hold still, Time, while I catch you with my brushes. And one day, we may learn from this memory of you held captive by color wrapped in lines" seems to hang in the air like breath on a winter's day. At other times, Jackson conveys ideas so compactly that they reverberate long after War's conclusion. "Peace is just a moment's pause for aim" has been scored in my thoughts ever since. The characters, though largely symbolic, are sharply drawn. Kain (a praying mantislike Kevin Clarke) leaps off the stage with his venomous plans. Meanwhile, Kulan's battle with his conscience (sympathetically portrayed by Cassidy Brown) makes the hero seem deeply human. Even secondary characters like the moral-dispensing cloth-maker Madam Ajbi and the gossiping doctor Madam Ajtza come to life thanks to Jackson's use of comical catchphrases.
If anything keeps us hypnotized for close to three hours, it's the production's gliding visual and musical landscapes created with perfect control and attack by the acting ensemble and two musicians. Whether consciously or not, the production echoes certain Western theatrical auteurs' interpretations of Eastern dramatic traditions. Jackson seems a natural heir to the celebrated French director Ariane Mnouchkine in particular. Mnouchkine terms her work "imaginary kabuki" because she's not interested in the authentic regurgitation of Asian theatrical forms; she'd rather reinvent them to create a new sense of reality. Jackson does the same in The Forest War. By blending characteristics of kabuki such as heavily stylized movements, elaborate makeup and costumes, black-clad stage "assistants" (or "kurogo"), and simple props instead of full-fledged scenery (e.g., a small black-and-gold mat to symbolize the throne) with occidental ideas (such as fierce, mood-shifting lighting effects and Western musical instruments like the clarinet and timpani), Jackson creates a physical environment that flawlessly encapsulates his theme: the simultaneous dissonance and harmony between two very different ways of being.
When myth expert Joseph Campbell wrote "the latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and The Beast, stands this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change," he meant that we are all still creatures of myth. Yet the quirkiness of this image makes the ancient legends seem postmodern. Just as the principles of yin and yang, war and peace, and life and death are inextricably linked in The Forest War, so a great story is old and new at once.