War Horses

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It has been an unusually busy season for theatergoing in Chicago (in past years, the highlights of the summer theater season have only been Steppenwolf’s season-closer and the remounts at Theater on the Lake) so I’ve been madly dashing from one theater to another over the past couple of weekends, a frenzy that’s been aggravated by my weekly bounce-arounds between New York City and Phoenix for my day job.  Last weekend, I caught Strange Tree Group’s Shakespeare’s King Phycus and Redtwist Theatre’s Equus. Playwright Tom Willmorth breathes life into Shakespearian war horses by devising a world premiere play that mixes together the best and not-so-best elements of Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III into one clever, energetic, eccentric, at times laugh-out-loud funny brew which, with its questionable length, ultimately wears the audience down.  Horses figure literally and metaphorically in Peter Shaffer’s Equus which, despite an impressively atmospheric staging from Redtwist Theatre, really cannot overcome the fact that it is a tired, dated, quite pretentious piece of 1970s-era writing, although often perplexingly revived (a version with Alec Baldwin as the doctor is now playing in the Hamptons in New York, right on the heels of the Daniel Radcliffe-led revival on Broadway last season).

I’ve been a big fan of Strange Tree Group and the dark, arresting, very original work of its resident playwright Emily Schwartz.  Guest playwright Willmorth’s King Phycus has the same hip, smart, sassy, go-for-broke (but never pedestrian) humor of Schwartz’s plays.  Despite the Shakespearian motifs though, this play is sunnier in disposition or performance than, say, Mysterious Elephant.  I admire Willmorth’s clever word play and bravura string-along of themes and characters from Shakespeare’s tragedies – Hamlet and Juliet are siblings, the children of King Phycus; he’s married to MacBetty, she’s engaged to Richard, Duke of Gloucester; Romeo is an Italian spy in Phycus’ court; Gertrude’s a ghost; the Friar is a drug dealer; the Nurse has an accent straight out of Dollywood.  It’s all very silly and entertaining, for the most part, with the dialogue often smart-ass quippy (such as Gertrude’s ghost being a drag queen), but this play just goes on and on and on.  King Phycus is a greatest hits catalog of Shakespearian scenes with a twist (a blinded Phycus wandering the heath like Lear with Hamlet disguised as the jester Yorick; a witch suddenly appearing with her predictions in the middle of MacBetty and Richard’s golf game, yes, on the heath, as well).  The scenes are funny, not because they’re parodied or played farcically, but because they’re incongruously and unexpectedly put together.  But two hours into the play, they become kinda repetitive. Although Ira Amyx’s direction can be tighter, the excellent, six-person cast playing multiple roles is exuberantly game and skillfully deadpan, and Jay Neander’s production design, both onstage and in the theater, is a visual pleasure.  A big shout-out as well to the team who created the impressively detailed lobby displays that chronicled, via text and props, the fictional journey of King Phycus from writing to performance.

The last production I saw of Equus was Sean Graney’s for The Hypocrites a couple of years back.  Although Graney gave the play his signature wow factor, I felt, even then, that the writing was terribly shopworn.  I’ve been a fan of Redtwist Theatre since I saw their incredible production of The Pillowman last year, so when I heard they were remounting their hit production of Equus from 2007 (which I failed to see because of sold-out performances), I quickly bought my ticket, determined not to miss it this time around.  Unfortunately, this story of a disturbed young man, Alan Strang, who blinded six horses, and the emotionally-conflicted psychiatrist, Dysart, who treats him is a 1970s theatrical dinosaur- full of artsy interior monologues from the psychiatrist and the use of such dated narrative contrivances as hypnosis and ingesting of truth pills.  Shaffer also doesn’t write truthfully or clearly about sexual repression (for example that whole symbolic linking of a religious photo in Alan’s bedroom with a photo of a horse is a major groaner).  Although the homoeroticism in the play was possibly daring for its time, it’s not a big deal for a 21st century audience used to more graphic, yet more thoughtful, portrayals onstage and onscreen.  Director Michael Colucci, also Redtwist’s Artistic Director, stages Equus intimately in the theater’s small space, with the actors inches away from the audience and Dysart delivering some of his monologues in darkness while standing in the audience.   This approach gives this production a hypnotic, almost dream-like, feel.  Colucci’s staging of the blinding of the six horses is also impressively stylized.

Because the script is so weak, I feel that the two lead performances should compensate, but, unfortunately, in this production, they don’t.  Brian Parry was nominated for a Jeff Award for his Dysart in the original production, and although I think it’s technically well-executed, it’s not terribly exciting.  The nuances of the character’s life- his unhappy marriage, his perception that his job is a dead-end, his subtle attraction to Hester, the barrister- aren’t well conveyed.  Parry’s performance is a big performance, at times too big for such a small theater,  seeming a little too hammy, a little too look-at-me, a little too, yes, Richard Burton (whose overacting Dysart in the film version was bafflingly nominated for an Oscar).  Andrew Jessop plays Alan, and although he has the boyish physical looks, I’m not sure I really bought into his portrayal (and I am a big admirer of his Keturian in The Pillowman).  I think Jessop comes off  somewhat worldly, with a visible tinge of confidence, with too little of the schizophrenic naiveté, the mix of wistfulness and fury, that I think the best Alans have.  It’s a brave performance (especially in the emotional and physical nakedness of the climactic scenes) but it doesn’t uplift the material.  And without towering performances, Shaffer’s play is conspicuously puny.

Shakespeare’s King Phycus is at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St., until July 31.  Equus is at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, until August 29.

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2 Responses to “War Horses”

  1. Esther Says:

    I saw Equus on Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe and I agree with your assessment. I liked his performance but overall, the play is pretentious.

    And I just realized you added me to your blogroll. Thanks! I will return the favor. Although I haven’t been blogging all that much for the past few months. :-(

  2. francis Says:

    Thanks Esther! Glad to see you around these parts…:)

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