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Friday, July 29, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: Actor's Choice's "Equus" at Bunbury Theatre through 8/7/11


You will find interviews with director Mike Seely, actors Roger Fristoe and Drew Cash as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the rehearsal for Equus on the Performing Arts Page of Arts-Louisville.com.

Arts-Louisville.com is in the process of merging operations with TheArtsLouisville to better serve our community. I am pleased to welcome Editor-in-Cheif Keith Waits to the site and offer you his review of the production--Scott Dowd

Equus is a mystery, a psychological thriller, and a horrific exploration of the desperate reach for passion and meaning in the unlikeliest of places. For me, it has always been a touchstone and a reminder of theatre’s full potential for discovering the darkest and most complex aspects of the human psyche.

Drew Cash as Alan Strang in the Actor's Choice production
of Equus, at Bunbury Theatre through August 7.
This production, the debut of a new company called Actor’s Choice, does a remarkable job and comes very close to fully realizing the power of Peter Shaffer’s brilliant script. Director Mike Seely doesn’t attempt to reimagine the material, choosing to take his cues from the text and staging concepts that made the original 1973 London production a benchmark of contemporary theatre. From the square, rotating platform to the inventive, abstract metal frame horse heads worn by the actors portraying equine characters, this is a solid representation of the author’s conception.

The story overlays modern concerns about aberrant behavior on a structure filled with allusions to classical theatre. Alan Strang is a teenager sent to a mental hospital after blinding six horses with a hoof pick. Assigned to Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist troubled by questions about his own identity and self-worth, the boy’s psyche is peeled back, layer after layer, until the shocking truth is revealed. Dysart narrates his journey into Alan’s soul directly to the audience, using references to Agamemnon and Mycenae drawn from his own study of ancient history. But Shaffer’s provocative thesis is to promote the idea that Alan’s madness may be preferable to Dysart’s complacency. It is heady, stuff indeed.

Without strong, grounded work in the two leads, it simply won’t work, but Mr. Seely elicits performances that truly deliver. As Dysart, Roger Fristoe brings a lighter touch than one might expect, but he effectively uses the humor to enrich the character and gently lead the audience into the shadowy depths of Alan’s heart of darkness. Eventually he leaves levity behind, delivering the final lines of the play in hushed and strangled tones that confirm that Equus is ultimately much more Dysart’s story than Alan’s.

When I have seen Drew Cash in other roles, his sweet, gentle good looks and open countenance would suggest he is not a good fit for the deeply troubled character of Alan Strang, but he enters the stage with a haunted gaze that renders the character’s disturbance wholly palpable, and fearlessly throws himself into the role. It is the second time this year that Mr. Cash has tackled this character, so perhaps the generous time afforded by two rehearsal periods gives him some advantage, but no matter. However he arrives at this result, it is on the money.   

There is solid support from the rest of a well-chosen cast. Jennifer Thompson (also repeating from the previous production) is a beguiling Jill, the girl who plays an important part in triggering Alan’s tragic actions, while Jayme Thomas, Claire Sherman and Alan Weller delivered good counterpoint in smaller roles.

The roles of Alan’s parents, who are a contrast in temperament and sensibility that attempts to explain Alan’s unique pathology, are more problematic. It is an area of Shaffer’s script that seems a little out-of-step now, an oversimplification of motivations that seem too neat and tidy more than 30 years later. And while Tom Petty was pretty good as Frank, Jamie Lentz was too neurotic and self-conscious as the mother, Dora. Her mannerisms were a little “busy” and therefore distracting, a problem exacerbated by an unfortunate wig that accentuated every movement with unneeded emphasis. It was the one bad element of an otherwise impeccably designed show. Ms. Lentz did manage to bring her character into better focus for her final act two scene with Dysart.

A unique and defining characteristic of Equus is the portrayal of six horses onstage by actors wearing stylized horse’s hooves and heads. They act as something of a chorus in key scenes in the stables, and there entrances brought a powerful and foreboding presence that was crucial to setting the appropriate tone. Tim kitchen led this group in the role of Nugget, and has a good comic scene as a horseman early on. In addition to Mr. Kitchen, they are Sherrick O’ Quinn, Kevin Bowling, Jeremy Gutierrez, Colby Ballowe, and Luke Aaron.

In the end, this Equus is a stunning and beautifully crafted production of a potent and profound play. The script builds magnificently and Mr. Seely’s careful direction maintains the measured pace so that the carefully judged central performances have room to breathe and mature. Arriving in the dog days of summer to once again provide proof of the role theatre should play in our lives, this production is a must-see.

Equus

July 28 – August 7, 2011

Actor’s Choice
At Bunbury Theatre
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY
(502) 583-8222

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

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