Review: Intimate EQUUS Provides Startling Take on Pain and Passion

By: Jul. 21, 2016
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EQUUS, presented and directed by Jeremy Seghers, now playing through July 24th at Orlando event site The Acre, is not a show that will appeal to everyone, as it treads not so lightly on a number of rather taboo issues. That being said, if your sensibilities are not easily rattled, the story of a startlingly damaged boy, performed in a unique theatrical venue, is a dramatic experience not to be missed.

Seghers has staged the production in a rustic, converted small barn/large shed, adorned with farming and equitation implements, from set designer Jamie DeHay. There are only about two-dozen seats, and the actors enter from all sides of the tiny building, and walk in and around the audience. This immersive intimacy brings you close enough to the actors to hear, and in some cases feel, their breath.

Often during the show, I felt like I was too close to the action, not because I couldn't see what was going on, but because the raw emotion of the performances was so overwhelmingly palpable that I felt as if I needed to come up for air. I am fairly certain that this enveloping sense of emotional suffocation was the director's goal in selecting the small performance space.

John Edward Palmer and Michael Thibodeau

Anyone familiar with Peter Shaffer's Tony Award-winning play will know that the show's challenging content centers on a teenaged boy's religious and sexual infatuation with horses, which leads to a gruesome act of violence. However, the show's most appalling moments are framed not to offend or titillate, but rather as tools to explore the deeper fears and pains found within its main characters; specifically the aforementioned teenager, Alan Strang, and his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart.

Played respectively by Michael Thibodeau and John Edward Palmer, their relationship and what each needs from the other is at the heart of their story. Thibodeau communicates Alan's broken psyche with the bubbling anger and frustration of a boy unequipped to communicate and interact with the world around him. His performance is stark, powerful, and the dramatic binding that keeps the production together.

Unfortunately, despite Alan being at the center of the story, EQUUS is ultimately about Dr. Dysart's attempts to figure out if the work that he has dedicated his life to has any meaning. For him, Alan's pathological obsession and reverence of horses becomes not a symptom of the psychoses of a sheltered boy torn between the two opposing worldviews of his parents, but rather as an exciting, beautiful passion, of which he himself is no longer capable.

While Thibodeau provides his character with layers of insight and nuance, we don't see nearly as much depth from Palmer. Shaffer's words show a man impacted at his core by Alan's tumultuous journey, but Palmer's performance doesn't indicate that. While the appropriate tones and notes are all hit, it comes off feeling superficial, especially compared to the rest of this affecting cast.

Jason Blackwater, Michael Thibodeau,
and Olivia Demarco

As Alan's parents Dora and Frank, Olivia Demarco and Jason Blackwater sow the seeds of their troubled son, but not through abuse or neglect, but rather through philosophies that, at their core, just cannot coexist. Despite their differing approaches, it is clear that both parents love their son dearly, in their own ways, thanks to the compassion and authenticity shown by Demarco and Blackwater.

As Jill Mason, the young woman who draws Alan out of his shell, and indirectly fuels his most unimaginable acts, Fabiola Rivera is the show's lone source of levity and excitement. Her tomboy flirtations with Alan give the proceedings an air of optimism that they much needed before careening into the unimaginable.

While her stage time is comparatively small, Rivera's effervescent personality provides the backdrop for much of what has stuck with me from the show. Her genuine warmth for and acceptance of Alan, despite his idiosyncrasies, represents his path not taken; and I left The Acre imagining what could have been for this engaging pair, had Alan's demons not proved to be too strong. That is a complement to the stellar work of the pair.

One of the show's most interesting artistic feats is found in its stable of six actors playing the horses. In the days where we are accustomed to seeing actors portray animals on stage in shows like War Horse and THE LION KING, the simple costuming and deft movements of this ensemble convey a realistic team. While the small confines restrict how much movement they can show, it is impressive nonetheless.

While the show is known primarily for its on-stage nudity and Strang's unthinkable acts, it truly centers on the examination of what and how we worship, and the question of whether an individual is defined by his pains or his passions. This EQUUS is at its best when those depths are being explored.

Seghers has crafted a unique theatrical experience, the likes of which Orlando is not often fortunate enough to see. While not perfect, this is the type of creative theatrical risk-taking that the Central Florida community needs, and I am excited for the director's take on DRACULA this fall.

The remaining performances of EQUUS are sold out, but for more information, visit the show's event page. No one under the age of 18 is admitted to the performance without a parent.

Did you experience this uniquely intimate production? Let me know in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter by using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Banner Image: John Edward Palmer, Jenny Ornstein, and Michael Thibodeau


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