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Dramas Touch on Political Power

David Mamet's play `Oleanna' explores sexual harrassment, Caryl Churchill's `Mad Forest' deals with Romania

MAD FOREST Drama by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey. At the Manhattan Theatre Club through Nov. 29.

CARYL CHURCHILL'S newest play dramatizes - or more accurately documents - phases of the revolution that overthrew Romania's brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

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An excellent cast of 11 actors portray the joy, as well as the heady and reckless confusion, of the 60 characters in the play.

But more than revealing the lives of ordinary people after the death of one particular eastern European tyrant, "Mad Forest" symbolizes the spirit of freedom, along with its aftermath of self-examination, that has surfaced around the world in recent years.

The play's basic problem is that its writer seems more concerned with chronicling events leading to the revolution than developing the characters. The effect is much like reading the headlines of a newspaper: There are so many characters who say so much that the thin threads between the lives of the two main families in the play are often lost. And, while Ms. Churchill's language is compelling and, at times, poetic, she interrupts the play's flow by introducing each scene with a phrase read in both Engli sh and Romanian.

Churchill explained in a recent magazine interview the reason for this device: "I wanted more a feeling that they [the actors] were Westerners visiting a foreign country."

That's exactly the feeling one gets. But it also breaks up the momentum.

There are, nonetheless, stirring moments. Early in the play, a father throws a raw egg on the dirty floor as a gesture of contempt for Ceausescu. His daughter, with great dignity, scrapes it onto her plate, so desperate is her family's need.

In one surreal scene, a dead man asks his comrade on earth to join him because he finds death "lonely."

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How Churchill came to write the play is as interesting as the work itself.

Mark Wing-Davey, then artistic director of London's Central School of Speech, asked the playwright to do a workshop production about the fall of Ceausescu, who was executed in December, 1989. Mr. Wing-Davey and Churchill took 10 acting students to Bucharest. Once there, they asked "average Romanians" what the revolution meant to them.

The resulting play was done at Romania's National Theatre in Bucharest and later performed at London's Royal Court Theatre.

Churchill is masterful at making poignant and painfully honest observations through her characters without being heavy-handed. One revolutionary comments after Ceausescu's death: "Sometimes I miss him ... I don't have anyone to hate."

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