Uptown Players' Revival of Equus a Rough Ride: Circle Theatre's Opus Goes Full Gallop

When Equus, a 1974 play by Peter Shaffer, returned to Broadway in 2008 after a successful revival in London, the sensation surrounding the stage debut of movie star Daniel Radcliffe—Harry Potter! Nude!—in the role of deranged, horse-killing teen Alan Strang, outshone the play itself. And for good reason. Turns out this once-critically lauded drama about a boy's psychotic worship of horses has aged into an old gray mare.

Uptown Players has tried hard to spur some excitement into the production now onstage at Kalita Humphreys Theater by adding nudity to scenes that don't require it. But that's a gimmick, one of many imposed by director Bruce R. Coleman, who also designed the scenery, that does nothing to lighten leaden material.

Coleman has overreached and underedited almost every element of this overwrought production. His spooky set is a plywood-and-Styrofoam Stonehenge that's a cheap knockoff of John Napier's 2008 London/Broadway design (Spinal Tap would have loved it). The "stone" is marked with Celtic, Druid, Gothic, Roman and who-knows-what-else symbols, and cluttered with fake flowers, cattails and long swathes of craft-store ivy. A revolving wooden platform sits amid piles of paint-splattered crates and benches. The floor is garishly decorated with bright green swirls, the back wall splashed with a huge crescent moon. Very medieval carnival. With fog machine.

Competing with the visual overkill are the gloomy, shout-y turns by the lead actors. Rick Espaillat is Dr. Martin Dysart, the shrink assigned by a compassionate magistrate (Carolyn Wickwire) to figure out why a 17-year-old has blinded six horses. He has an expressive voice but a stoic, stony face. For long speeches, Espaillat keeps his mouth fixed in a tight grimace, eyes staring blankly at the back wall of the theater. It's not a one-note performance, but it's no more than three at best.

Back when it was a Broadway hit the first time, Equus focused on the doctor, played over a three-year run by Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton and Anthony Perkins (fellow Harry Potter star Richard Griffiths played him with Radcliffe). It was his story then—about a passionless marriage, uninspiring career and jealousy of his young patient's connection to some pure, natural force. Post-Radcliffe, the spotlight now is on Alan, played at Uptown by slightly built 19-year-old Max Swarner, who comes on so tightly wound and psychically wounded, he's locked in at maximum angst for the two-and-a-half-hour play. Swarner relaxes only in brief scenes with the winsome Lee Jamison Wadley, as Jill, the stable (in both senses of the word) girl whose liaison with Alan leads to his psychosexual attack on the animals. Wadley gives us the only three-dimensional human in this strange, murky world of man-horses and madness.

Besides her, the best work in Equus is done by those actors who play the horses (all non-speaking roles) who so fascinate Alan. As lead horse Nugget, tall, wide-shouldered Daylon Walton has the bearing of a centurion (an image enhanced by golden horse-head helmets designed by Jeffrey Schmidt). Bare-chested and moving in unison, Walton, Alexander Ross, Scott Higgins, Greg Turnipseed, Chris Edwards and William Lanier perform a sensual, hypnotic dressage. If Coleman didn't have them in ridiculous equine costumes—low-slung, heavily fringed chaps with a suggestion of fluffy tails—they'd be unequivocally studly.

The "less is more" concept for Opus makes it a much better piece of theater than Equus. Michael Hollinger's 85-minute one-act, now at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre in Sundance Square, is also a smarter contemporary play. The characters are real people, all quick and attractive. Hairpins in a plot about the quirks and quarrels of a renowned classical string quartet keep things unpredictable. And the bonus is an ensemble of six fine actors in a gleaming production, directed by Alan Shorter, attacking their roles con brio.

At the beginning of Opus, the famed all-male Lazara Quartet is in artistic and personal turmoil. Gifted violist Dorian (Mark Shum), off his meds and mentally fragile, is breaking up with domineering violinist Elliot (Elias Taylorson), who has tried to keep their relationship in the closet. Carl (David H.M. Lambert), cellist and family man, has survived a bout with cancer. Divorced violinist Alan (Jakie Cabe) is nervous about the quartet's upcoming televised concert at the White House.

When Dorian goes AWOL, his replacement, Grace (Meg Bauman), earns her job with the group by impressing Elliot with a brilliant sight-reading of a difficult bit of Bartok. She's awarded use of a priceless 18th-century viola, donated by a wealthy friend of Dorian's. Grace's presence quickly alters the group dynamics. Are she and Alan getting too close too soon?

This witty, well-constructed script is a fugue of overlapping scenes, bouncing from rehearsals for the big gig to flashbacks of earlier events and to the musicians' individual interviews for a documentary. Opus picks up the tempo, which is already pretty brisk, when we see the passion these professionals bring to the smallest details, such as their noisy skirmish over eight bars of Beethoven. That tells us a lot about musicians' peculiar insecurities, and makes us listen closely to the music itself as they rehearse.

"I know what ma non troppo means," Elliot says when his playing is criticized.

"Well, that was clearly troppo," Alan snaps back. "It sounds like we're smothering a baby."

How these actors "play" their instruments is part of the magic of Opus. Director Shorter has kept performance sequences simple and abstract. The actors, holding real instruments, don't actually play them, but by establishing early on a simple miming of their bowing to recorded tracks (by Philadelphia's Vertigo String Quartet), we buy into the conceit. Besides, these guys look like classical musicians right up to their haircuts (or shiny scalp, in the case of Carl).

Playwright Hollinger, who also wrote Incorruptible, one of Circle's hits last year, is a violist. His inside knowledge of the tantrums and intrigues within classical music groups is all over Opus. But you don't have to like Bach or Bartok to appreciate his play, which unfolds as the mystery of what happened to poor Dorian.

On a sparsely furnished set by Clare Floyd DeVries, with walls done in the creamy wood of a modern concert hall (lit beautifully by John Leach), Circle's spiffy actors are in perfect pitch with the drama and comedy in Opus. Taylorson, last seen as the volcanic radio host in Upstart Theatre's Talk Radio, brings a subtler level of intensity to the role of Elliot. This actor is the area's leading maestro of controlled rage. His voice has a dark, sexy timbre too—more woodwind than violin—just right for commanding parts.

Mark Shum, adept at goofy charm, shows some new moves by turning the troubled Dorian into a sad clown. His scenes with Taylorson's Elliot crackle. Lambert and Cabe have the less showy roles as Carl and Alan, but they're both terrific. And young Meg Bauman holds her own against the older guys as the talented waif with a will of iron.

Opus builds to a violent crescendo and an ending that is an almost too-neat tying up of a multi-stringed plot. Contrived? Yes. Ma non troppo.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner