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The Forest
Timber Wolf: Howard Swain nettles Sharon Lockwood in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'The Forest,' Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky's comic look at serfs and nobles.

Nobles, greed and intrigue make 'The Forest' go 'round

By Sarah Phelan

OBSESSION, IF PROPERLY contained, can be a wonderfully illuminating experience. Happily, Shakespeare Santa Cruz Festival 1997--with its preoccupation with civilization and savagery--is an optimum example of how this principle can work. Each of this season's trio of plays sheds individual light on the paradoxically savage nature of civilized humanity--witness the magical Forest of Arden in As You Like It, the savage moral jungle of Richard III and the duplicity of Alexander Ostrovsky's The Forest. But when viewed in close succession, the sum of these plays offers an even richer portrait of our sometimes tragic, sometimes comic but always disturbingly multifaceted nature.

The Forest is the least well-known of the three works. After all, Ostrovsky never has reached Shakespeare's Superbard status. (Who else but Willy boy gets quoted by people in the mistaken belief that they are reciting wise words from the Bible?) Nevertheless, this Moscow-born playwright has remained the most beloved dramatist in the Russian-speaking world for over a century.

It's easy to understand his enduring popularity while watching The Forest, a bitingly funny and fast-paced classic about the clash between materialism and artistic values in a rapidly changing world. But what's not so obvious--to late-20th-century audiences, at least--is just how radical Ostrovsky was in his day (1823-1886). In fact, as one of the earliest dramatists to experiment with realism, Ostrovsky revolutionized Russian theater.

Unlike traditional aristocratic comedy, which was chockablock with czars and czarinas, Ostrovsky's work dealt with common people in recognizable situations. Consequently, it's not pompous heads of state but pig-headed merchants, crooked servants and vacuous young men who people The Forest. The characters speak street talk and jargon--picked up by Ostrovsky in all probability while he was being raised on the wrong side of the Moscow River as a child.

All this realism didn't go unnoticed by the Russian court, of course. Ostrovsky's plays were banned early on in his career by Czar Nicholas I, and the playwright was placed under secret surveillance.

Ostrovsky's intimate knowledge of the trials and tribulations of provincial actors was undoubtedly the inspiration for The Forest's Gennady and Arkady, two unemployed and bedraggled actors who find themselves pitted against the cunning and avarice of the inhabitants of a country estate. And though themselves not professional actors, these same inhabitants are so caught up in their manipulations that they no longer know who they really are. As Raissa the tyrannical matriarch so succinctly sums it up: "You play a role long enough, and suddenly you can't drop it."

Anne Justine D'Zmura has done a brilliant job of directing this world premiere of an exciting new adaptation of The Forest by SSC's very own Kate Hawley. Everything from the very classy set and earth-tone costumes--a holy trinity of forest green, blood red and mud brown--to Gregg Coffin's delightfully playful musical score serve to compliment the superior acting and tight pacing of this highly entertaining piece.

In particular, Howard Swain as the sound-and-fury Gennady and Robert Elliott as the impish Arkady steal the show with their rendition of the ever-dueling starving actors. Sharon Lockwood is fabulous as two-faced widow Raissa, and Clark Huggins is suitably reptilian as the illiterate bugle boy trying to crawl his way on metaphorical knee pads to the top of Raissa's petty kingdom.

Richard Farrell delights as the scheming timber merchant Vosmibratov, and Mike Ryan is perfectly silly as his lovesick son, Pyotr. Rebecca Clark convinces as the tragic Aksiusha, a strong contrast to the comic team of Bodayev (Don William Owen) and Milanov (Tom Graves). Hawley as the spying Oolita and Mark Messersmith as the scheming man-servant Karp perfectly round out this two-faced household, where manipulation is the name of the game and mad money flies swifter than forest birds.


The Forest plays through Aug. 31 in UCSC's Festival Glen. For ticket info, call 459-2159.

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From the August 13-20, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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