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Puppet-Driven 'Equus' at Constellation Theater

Ross Destiche (Alan Strang) and Ryan Tumulty (Horse), in Equus, Constellation Theater (photo by DJ Corey Photography)

We welcome this theater review from Ionarts contributor Philip Dickerson.

“The Naked Play,” “The Horses Play,” “The Harry Potter is in love with a horse Play”: These are just some of the descriptive nicknames given to Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Constellation Theater has revived this dark tale, bringing new life to a play that is plagued with stigmas and practical hurdles. In her program note, director Amber McGinnis Jackson speaks of the play as having “big ideas.” Despite the beautiful exploration McGinnis Jackson takes us on, the biggest obstacles presented by the play may not lie in the theme or ideas, but in requiring six horses moving about on stage and two brave actors being nude on stage for several minutes.

This play also has an infamous history tied to its 2009 West End/Broadway revival when Daniel Radcliffe, best known for playing the title role in the Harry Potter franchise, took on the role of Alan Strang, which required the young celebrity to bare all in front of thousands, night after night. Radcliffe’s stardom made the production more about seeing Harry Potter naked, and the story fell by the wayside. Now we find Constellation Theater doing what they do best, bringing local artists together to tackle productions that others may avoid. Thanks to careful crafting by McGinnis Jackson and the bravery of actors Ross Destiche and Emily Kester, the required nudity is handled with grace and the story remains the focal point.

Other Reviews:

Jane Horwitz, Constellation Theater revives ‘Equus’ to great effect (Washington Post, January 19)

Mark Lieberman, Horse Whisperer: Constellation Theater Interrogates the Mind with Equus (DCist, January 21)

Rebecca Ritzel, Actors head out of the theater and into the stable to prepare for ‘Equus’ (Washington Post, January 12)
At the onset, we are guided through this emotional quagmire by Martin Dysart (played exceptionally by Michael Kramer), an emotionally stale psychiatrist working day to day, until an extraordinary case is placed at his feet. A young boy named Alan Strang (Destiche) has blinded six horses for an unknown reason. Other psychiatrists have failed to get through his hardened shell, and Dysart is seemingly the boy’s last chance. Intrigued by the extremity of the case Dysart begins treating Alan. The production takes a while to find its pacing during the back and forth of the counseling sessions between Dysart and Alan and the flashbacks involving Alan’s parents (Laureen E. Smith and Michael Tolaydo), the stable master (Colin Smith), Alan’s love interest Jill Mason (Kester), and of course the Horses (Tori Bertocci, Gwen Gastorf, Ashley Ivey, Ryan Alan Jones, Ryan Tumulty and Emily Whitworth). When Alan begins to trust Dysart and play his mental “games and tricks,” the horse-like gallop sets in and the tension builds.

Beyond the intimacy displayed between Kramer, Destiche, and Kester, the horses make this production more real. The puppet head-pieces give visual satisfaction, but under the movement direction of Mark Jasser, the puppeteers provide authentic movement, mannerisms, and breath. Such authenticity is reminiscent of the West End/Broadway hit War Horse, which in many ways revolutionized puppetry. While Constellation’s horse puppets are much simpler in design, the actors bringing them to life create their reality with just as much precision.

Equus runs roughly two and a half hours with a ten-minute intermission. It closes on February 14.

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