LOST IN THE GHOST FOREST
Reviewed by Christopher Bernard
This premiere of a collaborative performance piece, with a script by Eugenie Chen, by the adventurous and brilliantly talented Cutting Ball Theater, has moments of great beauty and genuine poetry as it takes risks with an audience’s ability, and willingness, to disentangle a more or less straightforward story from a complex of music, movement, simple but evocative sets, and an oblique text that waxes and wanes between genuine poetry and unhelpful obscurity.
There’s much splendid singing, some skillfully stylized movement, and a sometimes willfully unclear script that can leave the audience feeling as lost as the main character in the ghost forest, or Tontlawald, of the title. The collaborative aspect may have been taken a bit too seriously: I sensed the absence of a single strong vision to bring the often wonderful parts into a securely successful and meaningful whole.
“Tontlawald” is less a play, or even a drama, than it is a staged dance-cantata with spoken word, based on the not-entirely-digested principles of Grotowsi’s “poor theater” (the essence of theater is body, voice, movement; everything else is décor) as exemplified by the Polish company Teatr ZAR, which performed in San Francisco last year and inspired co-director Paige Rogers (who directs with Annie Paladino) to this first effort at incorporating their principles. And as with many a first effort, it’s not quite there yet; by trying to do too much, it sometimes does too little, yielding satisfactions that are sometimes more the intellectual kind of solving a puzzle than the emotional kind that only art can yield. But it’s certainly a promising one, and one can only hope Rogers will continue down this path.
The piece is based on an Estonian legend, detailed in Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book, published a century ago, about Lona (played by the accomplished Marilet Martinez), a young girl tormented by that standby of many a classic fairy tale, an evil stepmother (exemplary characterized by Madeline H.D. Brown), and neglected by an indifferent father (a thankless role ably taken by Wiley Naman Strasser). Her family lives near the edge of a mysterious forest inhabited by spirit-like creatures thought to be fatally dangerous by the locals: exemplars of a society’s ever-feared “other.” But one day Lona, while strawberry picking, ventures deep into the forest, thinking that nothing she could find there would be worse than her home life. And in the forest she is met by a maiden (played by an endearing Rebecca Frank) who befriends and takes Lona home to live with her, where Lona finds a happiness she couldn’t have hoped for in her “real” home.
The maiden’s mother, who takes Lona in as a second daughter, makes a copy of Lona, a kind of golem, out of mud and a drop of the girl’s blood, but also containing a black snake sealed up in its breast, who returns to Lona’s family home and takes her place, to be beaten and berated by the evil stepmother but incapable of being harmed. One day, the evil stepmother is so enraged, she tries to kill the clay Lona; the black snake emerges and bites the stepmother, and she falls dead. Later, after lamenting the death of his wife, the father finds the piece of bread on a table, which he eats, and the next morning his corpse is found, stark and swollen.
Lona lives happily in the enchanted forest until she reaches womanhood, when, much to her sorrow, she is forced to leave the Tontlawald, to take on the burdens and joys of adulthood.
So far, so good, at least in terms of clarity. However, the Cutting Ball’s performance relies too heavily on the audience knowing a fairy tale that will be unfamiliar to most, and it sometimes becomes difficult to care about Lona’s misery or her joys. And the author couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in undigested, if tantalizing, ideas that are never developed: for example, in an allusion to the ghost-forest stage set – a hulking, box-like mesh – there is a reference to strings, dark matter and quantum entanglement that is dropped as soon as it is mentioned, and thus seems gratuitous: the sort of thing an audience should be led to think of on their own, and not pointed out to them unless it is going to be seriously engaged (an elementary rule of contemporary theater: never, ever, mention string theory unless at least one of your characters is a physicist).
On the other hand, the music (of which there is much) has no weak spots and is made up of a mélange of haunting European folk singing (reminiscent of “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares” recordings that were a hit in the 90s), classic American pop songs, an excerpt from Mozart’s Magic Flute, and other pieces. The music is sung (and occasionally strummed on a child’s cello) by the eight-member cast with admirable vigor and sensitivity. Standouts include Cindy Im and Sam Gibbs.
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Christopher Bernard is the co-editor of Caveat Lector magazine and author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins.