There is a lot that is very good about Forgotten Kingdoms, the new Rorschach Theatre play by Randy Baker, so it feels like damning with faint praise to say that the best thing about the play is its success related to scale. But it’s very difficult to keep every part of a production – from the story to the set to the direction – in balance, and it’s essential to the authenticity of the viewing experience. Aside from a couple of places where Forgotten Kingdoms gets in its own way, it maintains that equilibrium very well.
The play is set in 1983 on an island in the Riau Archipelago in Indonesia, and it centers on a young Muslim, Indonesian man who goes to visit the home of a Christian, American missionary and his family. To say much more would give away pieces of the story unnecessarily, and Forgotten Kingdoms is at its best when it can engage you in a constantly evolving dialogue. When the story and conversation stay focused on relatable themes like family, faith, and our responsibility to and for others, the discussions and dynamics are especially engaging and intriguing.
On occasion, though, the play leans in to the “clash of civilizations” description playwright Randy Baker has used to describe it, and in those moments it falters a bit. The larger picture of religious and cultural conflict is important, of course, but the theme is more relatable to audiences through the lens of two men and the responsibilities they feel toward their families then it is when they’re proxies for a centuries-old conflict that is the subject of history book and news articles.
Mostly, Forgotten Kingdoms stays appropriately contained. In a sign of strong direction and production, almost everything about the staging of the play intentionally measured. The characters grow visibly more and less comfortable in the physical space in a way that communicates more than the dialogue. The lights dim in a way that is slow and unnoticeable until you realize it does feel like twilight has crept up on the characters. Motivations and loyalties don’t shift so much as they reveal themselves very slowly and aren’t fully clear until well into the story. The style of both the script and the direction gives audiences a feeling of being dropped right into the middle of something a little complicated
Anchoring the cast as protagonist Yusuf is Rizal Iwan, who came from Jakarta to play the role in D.C. Iwan is excellent, doing nuanced work as a man of faith who asks many questions but who reveals little about himself. As Rev. David Holiday, Sun King Davis makes for a worthy foil. Davis has both the passion and the rich baritone to make him a believable Christian evangelist in a country with more Muslims than any other in the world. Natalie Cutcher does solid work with maybe the toughest role in the show – that of David’s long suffering wife, Rebecca. Rebecca’s frustration isn’t hard to understand, but the speed with which her emotions fluctuate, particularly in the second act, feels like the result of some careless writing.
Those smaller pieces are where, despite his best intentions, Baker missed the mark in some ways with the script. Particularly in the second half of the play, things take a dramatic turn that make even the quieter moments feel disjointed. But the story is still engaging and infused with humor. More importantly, thoughtful production and strong direction by Cara Garbriel pull the show together in a way that makes Forgotten Kingdoms a satisfying and thought-provoking work of theater.