The next Mark Jackson show that I saw, The Forest War, was written as well as directed by him. Shotgun Players, who have already won my heart by not having open seating, did a bang-up job with the Asian-inflected production. The large cast wore sumptuous costumes (even the peasants were dressed in rich though simple colors) and the minimal props to suggest a palace or a meadow were moved in and out dexterously by the black-clad stagehands. The actors were good and I was interested and entertained for three hours. So why wasn’t I raving to everyone about it? I had the odd sense that in a deep structural way I already knew everything that was going to happen.
The story concerns the palace rivalries between pro-war and pro-peace factions and their repercussions among the poor citizens when the old king steps aside in favor of the peace party (though this isn’t quite like King Lear – the king seems to be able to resume power and exact obedience as he wishes). Through treachery by the pro-war side and through the adulterous indiscretion of the Peace party’s leader (we were left to draw our own comparisons to the past couple of administrations) the military faction takes over and the kingdom ends in disaster. Despite such echoes of past literature and current affairs as I’ve just mentioned, the whole play moves smoothly in a timeless world – if I had been told that it was actually a translation of a centuries-old Yuan play I would have believed it. No slang ruffled the illusion of time and place. But I would watch a scene at the court and think, the next scene will involve those two women standing in the back and we’ll hear their story or the next scene will involve the young lovers and they’ll be out in the meadow, and I was always right. The old peasant woman would say, “I wouldn’t recommend it” and I would think, that’s going to be her catchphrase and we’ll hear it all evening – and sure enough. The artist is a good-looking, dreamy-eyed fellow of pure heart who loves the princess and insists on painting what he sees even if it isn’t what others see. Maybe the artist could be selfish and treacherous, all in the name of his art (even if his art isn’t worth it), and not on the side of the angels? The head of the military faction is a blustering and violent man, but I’m not really sure why he kept insisting on war as the only solution – I didn’t want him reduced by a motivation so much as elevated by a philosophy. The line that was pulled out for the programs is “What is justice that it does not count love among its laws?” Good question, but so is “What is love that it does not count justice among its laws?” War is bad, art and love are good – admirable sentiments, and most of us would basically agree with them, and to me that was the problem with The Forest War, entertaining and accomplished as it was.