REVIEW: Equus (Ludicrous Theatre)

Ludicrous horses around with modern classic

 

Eqqus - Ludicrous Theatre - poster

    
Ludicrous Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by
Wayne Shaw
at
Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through November 6th  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably my favorite aspect of Peter Shaffer’s 1976 psychological mindbender Equus is the hodgepodge of a religion he creates, one that cherry picks Christian themes and collides them with children books and commercial jingles. And horses, of course. Alan Strang, the head priest and sole member of Shaffer’s cult, creates a faith from everything that surrounds him. In particular, I love the word Alan gives the sacred riding bit, “chinkle-chankle,” and the devout seriousness in which he utters the babyish term. While usually goofy and occasionally unsettling, Alan’s horse-worship serves as a jumping-off point for a quest for spirituality in our modern world. After seeing any production of Equus, Shaffer’s views leave me rattled. Ludicrous Theatre’s production understands the play, but director Wayne Shaw is unable to effectively communicate the drama’s full power.

100_0604In a bold attempt to make the play seem more relevant, Ludicrous’ big “twist” on the script is changing Shaffer’s Southern English countryside setting to an area a few miles outside of Reno, Nevada. There’s at least one Sarah Palin t-shirt and several large belt buckles. The changes pretty much stop there. One wonders if Alan’s father Frank, who is described as “an old time socialist,” would be readily found in such an environment. In the end, the new take doesn’t really do much damage or enlightenment. Shaw and his cast have much bigger issues to worry about, anyway.

Buried in Ludicrous’ mission statement is the desire to explore the spiritual and the sexual on-stage. Equus provides plenty of fodder for both. I don’t know if I have every seen more balls on display for longer periods of time, and I’m not sure if I ever will. For most of the two-and-a-half hour piece, Justin Landry stands upstage completely naked besides a wire contraption shaped like a horse’s head. Shaw gets his Alan, Ian McCabe, nude as often as he possibly can. The nudity is interesting in certain respects (horses are naked, after all). It becomes over-the-top and cringe-worthy in several spots—especially when Alan is actively recounting his arousing experience riding Nugget (Landry). We end up with something that looks an awful lot like anal sex, but really awkward.

Staging in general is a weak point of Shaw’s. The production doesn’t really know how to handle the more abstract moments, such as when Alan recounts his first ride on a horse. A lot of the movement is unmotivated as well. There’s an old-time film noir feel to the acting—the cast pushes at the melodrama whenever they can, standing up just to sit back down, moving across the stage to signal distress or deep thought, etc.

 

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Kevin Heller is miscast as Dysart, Alan’s psychologist and spinner of this yarn. In voice and appearance Heller comes off as far too young. Conversely, McCabe comes off way too old. They change his age to 20 from the scripted 17, but this leads to more questions. Part of what makes Shaffer’s play so gripping is the fact that Alan is so young; place the character a few years older, and you wonder why no one found his antics strange, or how a kid who can barely read graduated high school.

There is a (most likely unintentional) brilliance in Heller’s casting. His Dysart is wooden, boring, and clinical. While not great acting, it brought to mind the thematic clash at the heart of the story, begrudging acceptance of mediocrity vs. explosive spiritual awakening.

This sort of accidental freshness pervades the whole production. The over-the-top style and uneven acting ability somehow still showcases the play, much more than the imposed alterations. McCabe manages to nail Alan’s flailing mysticism, a crucial requirement. This is by no means the definitive Equus (it’s not even the best storefront Equus this year—Red Twist had a much better handle), yet, at the end of the night, you will leave meditating on what divides the holy from the unholy in this world.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Ludicrous Theatre's Equus Cast

CAST: Kevin Heller as Martin Dysart, Ian McCabe as Alan Strang, Robert Dean Wells as Frank Strang, Elizabeth “Missy” Styles as Dora Strang, Suzanne Bracken as Hester Salomon, Kristen Bjorge as Jill Mason, Josh Becker as Harry Dalton, Justin Landry as Nugget and Amy Gray as Nurse.

       
       

REVIEW: Equus (Redtwist Theatre)

A Gripping Tale of Equestrian Mutilation

 

EQUUS2

   
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Schaffer
Directed by
Michael Colucci
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through August 29  |  tickets: $22-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Peter Schaffer’s 1973 psychological-detective caper Equus, with its sparse props list and focus on metatheatrically recreating journeys to the psyche, thrashes the audience about the dark corners of the mind. The plot is based on Schaffer’s re-imagining of a story he heard about a boy blinding 26 horses. Maybe not surprisingly, EQUUS1-72 with such a screwed-up headline, the rumor was that the young man came from a twisted religious household which Schaffer included in his first drafts of the play. In one of those great tales of revision, Schaffer edited his work so that boy actually creates his own religion, one that worships the horses he stabs. The final product is a terrifying plunge into spirituality and faith that rips into both contemporary views of morality and normative psychology.

Michael Colucci’s searing production at Redtwist Theatre puts this mental mess mere inches away from the audience, which includes the entire cast seated beneath eerie horse heads. We’re led through this forest by Brian Parry as Dr. Martin Dysart, who dissects the mind and actions of the disturbed Alan Strang (Andrew Jessop) in an attempt to piece together how anyone could do such a senselessly destructive act (the number of horses is reduced from 26 to 6 in the play). What he uncovers is a collage-like, one-person cult that ties together commercial jingles, children’s literature, Judeo-Christian theology, calendar photos, horses, and a pervading life force that bleeds through all existence. It’s a pretty interesting feat for a 17-year-old.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is that Alan’s parents (portrayed by Debra Rodkin and Laurens Wilson) are decidedly un-dysfunctional. Yes, Mrs. Strang is strongly Christian, Mr. Strang is loudly socialist, and the family is by no means the model of child-rearing. But Schaffer paints Alan’s background as relatively normal, and therefore avoids an easy “blame-it-on-the-parents” morality tale. While sometimes they come off as stock oppressive procreators, Rodkin and Wilson find the right subdued quality for the grieving family.

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Watching this tragedy unfold demands a lot from the audience. Parry leads brilliantly, gently taking our hands like we’re one of his patients yet never talking down to us. Jessop plays off Dysart’s questions with the required restraint, letting fly just enough vulnerability among the steaming piles of disinformation.

Redtwist produced this epic a few years ago, but Colucci’s version is considered a new envisioning. It’s not without its kinks. The second half doesn’t build correctly; it jerks, rather than swoops, towards the inevitable crash. The famous nude scene, which sort of counts as the spectacular finish in this spectacle-stripped play, feels unearned. Most of this is due to the lack of chemistry between Jessop and Holly Bittinger, who plays his almost-lover Jill. They overplay the awkwardness and can’t quite hit the animal magnetism.

EQUUS3-72 I wasn’t completely sold on the cramped set, designed by Jessop as well. The intimacy is interesting, but it lacks the cathedral-sized magnitude of religious ritual. Alan’s creation feels as grand as any of the polytheistic faiths of antiquity, and it follows that the idols should be as imposing as any old Sphinx or statue of Zeus. The effigies here are closer to hobby-horse size. Of course, this is a limitation of the space, and we do gain a tight focus on the characters. But either way, something feels missing.

With a space this small and a script this bombastic, a production of Equus could easily be overblown and awful. However, Colucci, Parry, and Jessop commit fully to the text for the whole 2.5 hours, never loosening their vise-like grip over the house. Schaffer’s final thoughts on spirituality versus normalcy are pretty bleak, and there is no attempt here to brighten them up. Colucci leaves it up to the audience to decide how to balance the gods present in our lives and the petty realities we face everyday, perhaps going beyond Schaffer’s words.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Review: Redtwist Theatre’s “Lettice and Lovage”

The Joy of Eccentricity

Millicent Hurley (Lettice) and Jan Ellen Graves (Lotte)

Redtwist Theatre presents:

Lettice and Lovage

 

by Peter Shaffer
directed by Steve Scott
thru November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Millicent Hurley (Lettice) and Jan Ellen Graves (Lotte) The Redtwist Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage is nothing but pure comic delight. Director Steve Scott keeps it simple and allows the talents of Millicent Hurley (Lettice) and Jan Ellen Graves (Lotte) to take flight. Starting out as opponents, Lettice and Lotte solidify their friendship over shared confessions of their philosophies and tastes. Hurley and Graves ground their characters in the fullness of flesh and blood, accenting their foils’ eccentricities without a hint of condescension. The result is a comedy whipped up to deceptively light and careless fun. Sterling and well-balanced performances by Jim Morley (Bardolph) and Maura Kidwell (Miss Framer) set the production like a little diamond in silver.

Charlotte “Lotte” Schoen, manager of tours conducted through Fustian House in Wiltshire, England, must sack Lettice Douffet for deviating from the official tour script. But Lettice, who believes her duty is “to enlarge, to enliven, to enlighten” her tourist audience, finds Fustian House “haunted by the ghost of Nothing Ever Happened” and since “fantasy floods in where fact leaves a vacuum,” feels free to embellish on family estate history. Though Lotte cannot allow Lettice to have free reign with the facts, she is drawn nevertheless into Lettice’s world and reveals passions one would never have thought possible in her staid, practical nature.

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The light, quick precision of Hurley and Graves’ performances allows Shaffer’s comedy to be what it was intended: a little rebellion against the grayness of the modern world that champions the imagination against resigned acceptance to what is. Lettice and Lotte may indeed act like schoolgirls, but their childlike play sets the soul free from crushing convention. In laughing with, as well as at, their shenanigans the audience becomes their co-conspirators.

“Without danger, there is no theater,” says Lettice, a woman whose whole life confronts head on the fear of appearing ridiculous. But what is that compared with submitting to the absurdity of promoting an inedible cheese product at a supermarket for her living? Beneath Lettice’s brave eccentricities lies the incapacity to accept the gross absurdities of capitalist civilization; just as beneath Lotte’s practicality lies a radical revulsion against modern ugliness. Their blossoming friendship gives them the freedom to be themselves with each other and, who knows, perhaps create an alternative future. For a couple of hours, we get to steep in the light of their growing bond with each other and enjoy the freedom of their bloodless revolution.

Rating: ««««

Millicent Hurley (Lettice) and Jim Morley (Bardolph)

Production Personnel

 

Playwright: Peter Shaffer
Director: Steve Scott
Stage Manager: Shauna Warren
Scenic Design: Jack Magaw
Light Design: Christopher Burpee
Sound Design: Christopher Kriz
Costume Design: Erin Fast
Cast: Jan Ellen Graves
Millicent Hurley
Maura Kidwell
Tom Lally
Jim Morley

Review: Piccolo Theatre’s “Black Comedy”

Precision, passion still needed in “Black Comedy”

Black Comedy

Piccolo Theatre presents:

Black Comedy
by Peter Shaffer
directed by P. Marston Sullivan
thru October 31st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

If timing is everything in comedy, then that is true in spades for Peter Shaffer’s comic staple Black Comedy, onstage now at Piccolo Theatre, directed by Peter Sullivan. Written in the 1960s, this outrageous British sex farce requires broad physical comedy blended with exquisite timing to work. Pity the cast that has not had substantial experience or training in that area. Their efforts truly are a lot of flailing around in the dark.

Black Comedy That’s too bad, because this cast definitely displays the energy for it. Brindsley (Adam Kander) is a young, struggling artist about to privately show his work at his apartment to a mysterious millionaire, Mr. Bamberger (David W. M. Kelch), who could make his fortune. The sale of his work is also meant to placate his potential father-in-law, Colonel Melkert (Andrew J. Pond), into letting him marry his poncy fiancé Carol (Liz Larsen-Silva). With Carol and Brindsley redecorating his bare flat with the posh antique furniture “borrowed” from next-door neighbor Harold (Brian Kilborn), their plans for a successful showing are ruined by a blown fuse and Harold’s early return from his weekend away in the country.

In the role of Brindsley, Kander does the yeoman’s job, in that his character must move all the furniture back to Harold’s apartment in the dark out from under everyone’s nose . . . or arse . . . or something. This is where the majority of the physical comedy takes place. Not a role for the faint of heart–or an actor without the skills of someone like Jim Carrey. What is more, Kander’s interpretation lacks the mischievousness that would make his character think that he could pull this whole thing off in the first place. Brindsley must be something more than just a desperate loser; he’s a desperate loser who thinks he can win.

Sullivan’s staging delivers some good bits, but without the requisite skills to execute them, it’s like watching the cast paint by the numbers. Spontaneity and surprise vanish into thin air.

Under-training plagues the whole production; even the dialect needs more consistency throughout the entire cast. Comic timing also goes missing in the preliminary sketches taken from British comedy favorites. It’s tough to tell a production to go back to the drawing board, but there it is.

Little moments of characterization are enjoyable: Liz Larsen-Silva is delightfully annoying as the spoiled Colonel’s daughter. Kelli Walker’s Ms. Furnival would probably writhe her way out of her clothing eventually, alcohol or not. Sandy Elias’ role as Schuppanzigh adds some badly needed, earthy humanism. The cast is certainly proficient in developing their roles. Would that their skill set had expanded sufficiently to pull off this monstrously demanding comedy.

Rating: «½

 

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