Saturday, September 11, 2010

EQUUS • HotCity Theatre

Giddyup psychodrama!

If anyone has any doubts about the variety and quality of theatre we have here in the Lou, they should make tracks to the Kranzberg Arts Center to check out HotCity Theatre's production of EQUUS.  I saw this last night with a couple of friends and I.  Loved.  It.

The play, written in 1973 by Peter Shaffer, was recently revived in NYC with Harry Pott… I mean Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths.  Here in St. Louis, it's admirably directed by Doug Finlayson.  The play centers on Alan Strang, a young English stable boy who has blinded six horses with a metal spike, and his psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who is talked into taking him on as a patient.  Buckle up, right?

What would drive a 17 year old boy to commit such a violent act against animals he loved -- animals he'd come to worship as deities?  As Dysart tries to find the answer to this question, and the details of Alan's life are revealed in a series of therapy sessions and flashbacks, we learn about both characters.  We learn about Alan, and how apparently, living with a mother who's a religious zealot and a father who's a restrained atheist can really mess with your head.  And we learn about Dr. Dysart, the man trying to figure him out.  In the process of dissecting his patient, slowly winning his trust, Dysart uncovers not only how the combination of societal, religious and sexual influences (with a little shame thrown in) have affected the mind of this kid, but the doctor also comes to realize that "curing" him would be in a sense, for him, breaking Alan's spirit -- a spirit and passion the doctor feels he has never known.  Does "normal and well-adjusted" = "happy and fulfilled"?  It's kinda heavy, dude.

Drew Pannebecker (Alan Strang)
and Brian Jones (Nugget).
Photo: John Lamb
The black box theatre space at the Kranzberg Arts Center is set up to seat around 90, and the intimacy of it absolutely heightens the intensity of the show.  Moody lighting by Michael Sullivan, along with eerie sound design by Robin Weatherall, play together well with John Armstrong's minimal stage, outfitted with a few small benches and a rounded platform, with most cast members seated along more benches in the first rows during the course of the show.

Drew Pannebecker as Alan Strang showed a huge range of emotions, and was fully committed and compelling to watch.  Brave.  Loved him.  I also believed every second of James Anthony's portrayal of Dr. Dysart, esteemed in his profession,  but unfulfilled and disconnected in his life, with his own moments of vulnerable disillusionment.  Steve Isom pulled double-duty as the stable owner Dalton, and Alan's father, "no-fun" Frank Strang.  His chemistry with Ruth Heyman as his wife Dora, make you understand why being at home with the folks may not be a picnic for an adolescent boy.  Heyman has a nice scene that stands out with Dr. Dysart, where you get to see a bit of her own anguish and frustration with her son, and it's very affectively played.  The cast is rounded out by Kelley Ryan as Hesther, the sympathetic magistrate and friend of Dysart's, Emily Fisher doubling as Jill, a co-worker at the stable and the Nurse, and the horses, Brian Jones (who also plays the Horseman) and Michael Perkins, who both have that horse action down.  Their wire-framed horse heads and platform hooves usually seem to be replicated in productions of this show from what I can tell, and they were a cool piece of work.

Drew Pannebecker (Alan Strang) and
James Anthony (Martin Dysart).
Photo: John Lamb
Oh and yes, people get naked.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't suspect there were more than a few guys there who were just waiting for the drop trou scene, but it was handled tastefully in complete accord with the context of what was going on, and honestly not nearly as provocative as the clothed scenes with Alan and his favorite horse, "Nugget".  Kudos to the dialect coach Julie Foh too -- no one misses a beat with the English dialects.

This is not the kind of show you can just let wash over you.  It's wordy and it compels you to think a little, but if you want some engaging theatre, don't miss it.  It'll be at the Kranzberg until September 25th.


Drew Pannebecker (Alan Strang), Steve Isom (Frank Strang/Dalton), James Anthony (Dr. Dysart), Kelley Ryan (Hesther), Ruth Heyman (Dora), Emily Fisher (Jill/Nurse), Brian Jones (Horseman/Nugget) and Michael Perkins (Trooper).

Costumes by Felia Davenport; lighting by Michael Sullivan; scenic design by John Armstrong; sound design by Robin Weatherall.

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