Sunday, April 23, 2017
Today I am grateful for the play “Equus”, by Peter Shaffer. Here’s what I knew about “Equus” before I saw the performance last night at the Forge Theater in Phoenixville, PA. It had something to do with horses and someone gets naked. . .so, virtually NOTHING! Which is rare for me as an aficionado of live theater and a sometime playwright myself. What planet have I been on to have missed this powerful piece?
I’m not an official theater reviewer so I don’t need to take the journalistic approach when I write about it. Good thing, because everything about the fantastic production I saw last night was emotional, which is right up my alley.
I joke frequently about how you wouldn’t want to be in my brain, but I now realize that the same must be true for many writers, including Shaffer. What prompts someone to write such a piece, with all of its intricacies, nuances and subtle underlying themes? That’s way out of my wheelhouse. And how does a director like Suki, take this esoteric work and bring it to life in such a minimalistic, small space? Brilliantly, that’s how!
But she sure didn’t do it alone. The talent on that bare-bones stage was top notch and so was the lighting. Lighting is everything. You can be as brilliant as Richard Burton but if you’re lighting sucks you might as well go home and orate to your mirror. They nailed both the set and the technical aspects.
Because I know someone in the cast I was privy to some of the ins and outs of rehearsals. I questioned the decision to have all cast members sitting on the perimeter of the stage, including the horses, during the entire production. As an actor, too, I found the idea not only grueling, but perhaps a little cruel. Yet it worked. Big time. And those professionals did not “break” from character once. . .I’m telling you not once throughout. . . and I was checking on them frequently to see if they would. That in itself was no small feat.
Matt Ronzani, as the young man Alan Strang, was completely honest and believable in his stellar performance. The courage it took to become vulnerable, both emotionally and physically in a public way was impressive to say the least. Sometimes it was exhausting to witness, yet so worth it.
At intermission, someone in the audience remarked about how hard it must be for the actors to remember their lines. They were talking about Eric Jarrell as Martin Dysart, who drives the show with force. I always find that comment humorous because any actor worth their salt knows that you don’t even begin to embrace the role until you know your lines. That’s when the work starts. And Eric did the work. He could have muffed every written line and still pulled off the role.
I missed my friend, Lenny Grossman’s last show because we had to make a sudden trip to the Midwest due to my mom’s illness, so I was doubly glad to catch him as Frank Strang, Alan’s father, this time. For someone who has recently ventured back into the acting world, Lenny proves that if you’ve got the chops, you’ve got the chops! In a later scene he could have very easily fallen into a caricature trap and taken it too far. . .gone for a laugh. . .been a little over the top. But he didn’t. He held fast and even, lending even more believability to his already great performance. Teri Maxwell (his wife, Dora) was his equal, with intensity and believability.
The funny and beautiful thing about good theater is the popping up of performances in your head later, that you didn’t realize were affecting you when you were watching the play. That’s what keeps happening to me with the supporting characters. All were exceptional and though some of the roles were not as large as others, they were all meaty and well played. Though I would have put the nurse in white oxford shoes instead of those heels, which were not believable to me at all. And that’s the worst I have to say, so I’m happy.
I’m a bit of a dunce and a little slow on the uptake sometimes and had not read the program before the show, so I did not realize that one of the actresses, Laura Cohn, who played Hester Saloman, was actually blind. It didn’t matter at all, because I could listen to her calming, yet strong voice forever. Hers is the face that keeps popping into my head, balancing the production with clarity and precision, holding it even like the bubble in a builders level. The production needed her centeredness. She delivered.
And then there were the horses. If you can remember back far enough to where I started, I wasn’t too sure about all of the actors being on stage throughout, especially the horses, who proved me wrong on that count. Their entrances and movements were seamless. Now I can’t imagine it done any other way. I could almost feel the heat of their breath as they moved their heads and lifted their feet into a typical horse stance. And not only was Brian Viksne, as Nugget the lead horse, in character at all times, the man himself exhibited amazing strength.
I get a little flowery when I’m affected by theater in a good way and I don’t care. Each member of this cast and crew was represented well. Theater for me starts with the person who greets us at the door when we arrived and the person who gives us our tickets, which were held at the box office. Even they didn’t disappoint.
This show is not suitable for children, due to nudity and language, but for the savvy theater-goer it is a real treat. Be aware ahead of time that parking is a challenge, since in order to be good neighbors you are requested to not park on First Avenue. Some challenges are worth it. Go anyway.
Performances of “Equus” at the Forge Theater, 241 First Avenue, Phoenixville, PA are today, Sunday, @ 2 p.m and next weekend, April 28 & 29 @ 8 p.m. and Sunday April 30 @ 2 p.m. Tickets are a bargain @$15 and available on line at www.forgetheatre.org or by calling 610-935-1920. Do not miss this one!