Mr. Ed

All plays are not created equal. Apart from the obviously weak entries, there exist some works of "light" dramatic art suitable for a wide range of acting companies, from the competent troupe to the spectacular. Neil Simon froth, English drawing room comedies, and large-cast mysteries fit under this umbrella. Appropriately, many of these enjoy repeated revivals at local community theaters and other less than stellar venues. While the perfect cast can make even such minor plays take flight, those who are not so gifted won't necessarily humiliate themselves by presenting them. Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie, for instance, is an entertaining show normally made palatable by all but the worst bunglers.

However, certain other pieces defy simple interpretations and completely undermine merely adequate players; these masterworks require artists of the highest caliber to bring them to proper life.

Peter Shaffer's brilliant allegory about passion at war with sanity, about grand obsession battling conventional psychotherapy -- Equus -- belongs squarely in the last category. Although the Hollywood Performing Arts Theatre bravely attempts to present a decent rendition of the play, and for the most part doesn't totally cock it up, mediocre work just won't suit a script of this nature. Put simply, the cast, with a few outstanding exceptions, just doesn't possess enough talent or experience to hook this large an artistic fish.

On the most superficial level, Shaffer's odd tale concerns a disturbed seventeen-year-old English boy, Alan Strang, who's just blinded six stable horses. Brought by the local magistrate into treatment with Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist in the throes of "professional menopause," the boy and man engage in, essentially, a punishing game of "truth or dare," during which the doctor's confidence in his chosen field is completely eroded while the boy's raison d'atre for his heinous act is eventually exposed.

During the course of months of therapy, Dysart and the audience get a chance to meet Alan's obsessive parents: Dora, who clings to religion and whispers stories from the Bible into her young son's ear at night; and Frank, the salt-of-the-earth disciplinarian who believes God is the root of all evil. Dysart clearly must unravel several mysteries. First, why did Alan blind the horses when he appears to love all things equine? How much did Dora and Frank contribute to the boy's dysfunctional behavior? And, paying homage to Freud, of course -- what did sex have to do with it?

But, as I said, this synopsis represents the story at its most surface level. Shaffer is a great writer and so his tale merely masks more profound questions. Is Dysart doing the right thing by "normalizing" Alan, or has the young lad reached into a worship so primal, so integral to the human condition that while his behavior is unacceptable, his motives are grander and more pure than Dysart's ever could be? The structure of the work also draws from the ancient Greek dramatic form, complete with wailing chorus; this is appropriate, since the text at times addresses Dysart's dreams of Greek ritual bloodletting as a metaphor for modern psychological sacrifices made at the altar of sanity.

To its credit, the Hollywood Performing Arts's production selected an excellent director in James Alexander Bond, who stages the play in a highly inventive and effective manner, complete with a bare corral-type set by Jerry Waxman that suddenly rotates at some highly dramatic moments. And John Sama as Alan performs admirably, bringing realistic torment, passion, and a quiet desperation to his role. Brigette Morrison as his girlfriend and co-worker, Jill, also does a fine job in her small role, even to the point of reproducing a firmly authentic English accent. Finally, Lawrence Jurrist as the father, Frank, hams it up a bit, but on the whole creates an interesting, appropriately rigid tyrant and again does it with a carefully crafted North Country brogue.

So much for the good points.
The rest of the cast, including Charlotte Sherman as the magistrate, Alison Simon as mom Dora, Corinna Lee as a nurse, and Roger Martin as stable-owner Harry Dalton are just not up to this sort of thing. Their acting ranges from phony to rigid to simply awful; many times they mouth the poetic dialogue as though it lay on their tongues like bitter and extremely hot potatoes they must abruptly eject.

But no one in the cast is quite as inept as Ed Schiff as Dysart, and apart from the character of Alan, Equus is Dysart's play. Ergo, the incompetence of Schiff eventually undoes the entire production.

In this role, Schiff commits every sin of bad acting. His portrayal is totally forced and superficial, as though he created the character by putting on an external set of mannerisms rather than understanding what motivates the tormented doctor internally, and then allowing his interpretation to arise from those discoveries. Because he is so detached from the essence and reality of his character, he frequently rattles and roars, chewing scenery to such an extent I expected splinters of stable wood to emerge from his cheeks. Even when other characters are bravely trying to create honesty on stage, Schiff's artificial rhythms throw the whole scene off-kilter.

When choosing a season, a company should be realistic about its own gifts. The greats of the stage, actors such as Kenneth Branagh, Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart, speak longingly of roles they intend to approach when they reach the appropriate age or gain more experience. If these masters can understand and appreciate their limitations, then less gifted performers should acknowledge those plays that they don't have the expertise to adequately understand and present. Equus is only for the best, but then perhaps you have to be a great artist before you can understand why.

Meanwhile, Schiff in his other role as company artistic director has been trying to garner publicity for the show by touting semi-nude photos to the press (see above). He's also encouraged the attention of the county's right-wing Citizens for Decency, hoping the group would protest the production's use of full-frontal male and female nudity. Like Luke Campbell and the 2 Live Crew, he perhaps expected a raft of "Banned in Broward" press clips to translate into more dollars at the box office. Actually, the short nude scene is tastefully done. Schiff's Madonna-like approach to play promotion is at best ludicrous and at worst, missing the whole point of great theater. Besides, no pickets showed up.



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