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Chicago by John Olson

Equus
The Actors Workshop Theatre

Also see John's review of Mack and Mable

Equus
Peter Oyloe and Daniel Han
Before its current notoriety as the occasion for Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe's introduction to the stage, Equus was a vehicle for the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton. Chicagoans, who can save about $100 on the price of a ticket and about $500 on transportation by going to the Actors Workshop's storefront theater rather than London's West End, aren't likely to expect that sort of star power in the role of psychiatrist Martin Dysart. Still, AWT company member Brian Parry has a presence and skill that meet the challenges of this demanding role and give the viewer satisfaction in seeing an accomplished performer shown to good advantage. Parry has the sort of mellifluous voice that you could listen to for days and he carefully works within the limited range of emotions allowed this doctor who doubts his own capacity for passion. The moment when he explodes into the red zone outside that range is as earned and believable as it is unexpected.

Parry has a solid co-star in Peter Oyloe as Alan Strang (the role Radcliffe is performing in London), the tormented teen who is treated by Dysart after blinding six horses with a metal spike. Oyloe is also a watchable actor and gets the teen's arrested development and vulnerability while navigating between Strang's withdrawal and confession. Physically, he relies a bit too much on a few poses, with his slight slouch and head cocked to one side. The entire cast, though, seems challenged by the tiny stage and forced into a woodenness for lack of space to move about or wave arms too much. Dysart walks with a cane, forcing his arms down at his sides even more. Then again, most of the characters are so emotionally controlled and verbally cautious that their limited physical movements seem to match their reluctance to reveal much about their feelings.

Director Joe Stead finds some clever ways to use the limited space to his advantage. His supporting cast joins Daniel Han (as Alan's beloved Nugget) to play the blinded horses. They sit on two sides of the stage when not performing their human characters ... watching the proceedings as silently and emotionlessly as do the horses in the climactic scene in which Alan and the stable girl Jill attempt to have sex. As that scene unfolds, the players don the horse-head masks which have been hanging above them throughout the play and assume the roles of the attacked horses, giving a human parallel to Strang's fear of judgment by the horses. In another effective use of the space, Stead has Dysart retreat to the back of the house while Alan recounts the details of the attack, placing the viewer's focus squarely on the boy's story.

The strength of the two leads is undercut to a degree by a less convincing and uneven supporting cast. Though Han mimics the body language of a horse effectively and makes a believable human as the horseman in act one, the remaining performers have more trouble with their naturalistic scenes. Debra Rodkin as Alan's mother Dora fully commits to her character, the most emotional in the play, and Maura Kidwell has an appealing quality as Jill; but the five supporting players all suffer from limited spontaneity and insufficient nuance.

Stead stages the nudity tastefully ... in dim lighting with Alan and Jill modestly crouching or keeping their backs to the audience much of the time they're unclothed. Far more erotic, and appropriately so, is Han's Nugget, dressed in leather pants and shirtless under a leather harness. Alan's physical attraction to Nugget is palpable (and probably shared by much of the audience).

Stead, Parry and Oyloe put across Shaffer's challenge to us to consider the merits of painful passion over the safer and easier option of avoiding feelings that might sometimes hurt. And, the money a Chicago theatergoer can save versus flying to London to see Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffith in the current production can pay for tickets to a whole lot of quality storefront productions like this one.

Equus will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Sunday, April 22, 2007 at Actors Workshop Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago. For ticket information and reservations, visit www.actorsworkshop.org or call 773-728-7529 48 hours in advance of show time.


Photo: Jan Ellen, Graves/Actors Workshop Theatre

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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