Theater Review: Brilliant production of Equus at Redtwist Theatre in Bryn Mawr

July 28, 2010

By Bill Beard

“A huge success in a tiny space” might be one way of describing Artistic Director Michael Colucci’s “re-imagined” production of Equus, currently running in Redtwist Theatre’s tiny storefront venue in the quaint Bryn Mawr section of Chicago. Equus is British playwright Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychological drama, well known for its nude scene. It was revived in London (and moved to New York) in 2007, and drew much attention, primarily because Daniel Radcliff (Harry Potter) did the lead (and the naked scene).

“Re-imagined” because this is a sort of re-staging (but not a revival) of this group’s 2007 production, with some of the same actors and designers, but with a fresh and quite intriguing approach. “A tiny space” applies because the setting for the entire action is not more than 6 feet wide, placed along one side of the long, narrow room, with the audience in three rows the length of the other side. That places the viewer within arm’s reach and breath warmth of the actors, which can be either tremendously engaging or extremely disconcerting, especially when the action becomes intense. I found that my front-row seat drew me irresistibly into the psychological crucible of the action.

That action revolves around a young patient, Alan Strang (Andrew Jessop), recommended by a magistrate, Hester Salomon (Jan Ellen Graves), to her psychiatrist friend, Dr. Martin Dysart (Brian Parry). The boy has been committed to a mental institution for having blinded six horses with a metal hoof pick in what appears to be a fit of religious psycho-sexual fervor. In a series of Dysart’s therapy sessions with Alan and flashbacks revealing his relationships with his religious fanatic mother (Debra Rodkin) and his uptight, sexually frustrated father (Laurens Wilson), we are made aware that Alan’s original fascination with horses and his confusion about religion has initiated a substitution within his psyche wherein his equine obsession has morphed into equine worship, and is released in naked midnight rides on his favorite horse, Nugget (played by Scott Butler).

The acting is excellent throughout. Even the supporting roles of the Nurse (Meredith Hogeland) and stable owner Harry Dalton (John Bushing) are solid. Special kudos to the wonderful Holly Bittinger for her completely convincing portrayal of Jill Mason, the girl who befriends Alan and with whom he nearly sins in the presence of his God, which triggers the final atrocity.

Jessop is completely convincing, honest, controlled and believable at all times. His work with Butler, who is outstanding as Nugget, in their riding and in their intimacy, is exciting and actually beautiful. The scenes between Jill and Alan are played with great subtlety; the nude scene in particular.

Scott Butler gives an amazing realism to his portrayal of Nugget, with a physicality that makes the animal absolutely real. For example, when left on stage during the intermission, he is faithfully believable, even demonstrating Nugget’s waiting and watching for Alan to return to the stable (after intermission).

Jan Ellen Graves has exactly the right demeanor for magistrate Hester Salomon; she is probably the most consummate actor on the stage. I will hope to see her again.

Brian Parry manages to keep Dr. Dysart’s lengthy narratives moving and his psychological explanations interesting, while revealing the good doctor’s own mid-life crisis and his frustration with what his life has become, envying Alan’s passion, even as he strives to relieve the boy of its outcome. As he says: “Passion can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.“

I do take exception to Parry’s delivery of his final speech, his “farewell” to Alan. We need to hear the doctor’s sober realization of what his “healing” of the boy will mean, “You won’t gallop anymore, Alan.” The vocal tone and cadence of this speech must be soul-baring in its complete honesty.

The consistent unity of this entire ensemble is remarkable. The design of this miniscule acting space requires, and contributes to, complete concentration at all times. The cast is on stage throughout the action, seated along the back wall in individual stall-like seats, which allows them to observe the action every moment. Their rapt attention contributes to the audience’s focus on the scene; and when involved in the action, the actors have only to stand and step into the playing space. It works beautifully.

The other tech aspects are well handled: excellent lighting, minimal props and the costumes are appropriate. The papier mache horse heads, which the six cast members don for the crucial stabbing scene, went a bit too much toward caricature, although in the startling reality created by the intensity of the action, they appeared all too real.

Equus is not often attempted these days. But when done well, it is worth traveling any distance to see. Redtwist Theatre’s production is a must-see for any serious theater lover. It plays through Aug. 29. See it! Call (773) 728-7529 or go online to www.redtwist.org.

From the July 28-Aug 3, 2010 issue

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