Archive for Theater Row

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: Preliminary Confessions #2 | Equus

Posted in Theater Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2017 by gregnett
masks

Comedy. Tragedy.

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer
PRELIMINARY CONFESSION #2

I do not often weep: for not only do my thoughts on matters pertaining to American culture (art) daily, hell hourly, sink to depths “too deep for tears” — but also, I believe that all minds which have contemplated such matters as intensely as I have done, must, for their own protection from utter despondency, hold some undying belief that the overall future and well-being of American culture (art) will one day be free of suffering. On these accounts, I am weary at this phase in life: and, as I have said, I do not often weep… Yet here I am, in my feelings once again, though this time much more even-keeled and moderate: and often, when I wander at this time around Hollywood, past the eateries, theaters (Pantages, Palladium) and tourist traps shops that line Hollywood Blvd. or along the much quieter Theater Row (Santa Monica Blvd.; same flair), each district lit up by bright, attention-grabbing signs, and hear the lively conversations of those I stroll by or see huddled together on the sidewalks outside of the theaters which years ago sated me, I shed a single, metaphorical “tear” and smile to myself over the other-worldliness of the scenery which so abruptly and so unsympathetically has separated me from being one with American culture (art) at the moment. How it happened, the reader should already know from my previous “incident”; however, there is still more remaining to this introductory narration…

Not long after the period of the last “incident” I recorded, I had the unfortunate opportunity of meeting a gentleman who might possibly be the worst instructor teaching at the community college level—at any grade level—and barring the fourth grade, having to sit through his “lectures” was the most excruciating time I’ve ever spent in a classroom. Several members of the faculty sang his praises and in their eyes, he could do no wrong. One would’ve expected rose petals to be flung at his feet every time he walked the halls from the way he was lauded by his peers. One female faculty member in particular left me mouth open and speechless over her adoration for him. The man had thrown a hex on her long before I arrived on campus—so there was absolutely nothing I could say to her to prove to her otherwise that this man was, excuse my French: le piece of fecal matter. On our walk to the Business Department office to make print-outs for our midterms was when I decided to voice my opinion. I had had enough—and something had to give goddammit! I respectfully told her that she shouldn’t be so quick to fall for every kind, old, black man that knows how to stack his words. I said that the black men of his generation had perfected the gift of gab and that it was like honey to the ears of the white men of his era who would much rather see black men holding out tin cups and sitting in the gutter talking to themselves in a drunken stupor or swaying back and forth in a warm summer breeze dangling from the end of a noose than upright and thriving. I also said that these same black men had used the power of spoken word for the majority of their lives and purely for selfish reasons like avoiding hardship, or getting out of a jam, or stuffing their bellies, or fleecing their own brethren. And then I said that some of these same black men had even managed to convince small, unsuspecting colleges/institutions that they were smarter than the senior classes exiting Princeton; case in point, the entire Business Department of L— College, for some reason, thinks that they struck oil when they decided to employ an elderly black man who is still working well into his eighth decade of existence, a black man who’s yet to teach his current students anything relevant to the course he had been selected to instruct—I said all of this, or something to that effect. I ended by mentioning to her that if he were so damn “smart” then why hadn’t he retired yet? I mean, David Rockefeller recently topped out at 101 but his work had real (dire) influence. He was rigging the stock market; he was re-engineering human beings; he was whispering to women that they should put down the frying pan and instead pick up the keyboard—all of this allegedly, of course. (I don’t want to get whacked!) But what was this friggin’ guy doing? Don’t flatter me by saying “Teaching us.” Seriously, a man that “smart”, I said to her, is willingly choosing to work until he’s dead…? Having said my fill and her with no response, we finished out the errand in silence.

It was only out of a matter of convenience that I had remained tight-lipped to begin with. During this period in life I was pretty much nostrils out all the time, always on the lookout for a shortcut—and I had found one with him. It was grating, but a shortcut nonetheless. I mean, he just sat in front of us and talked for two and a half hours—or however long—twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) about Venus knows what; all of it improvised and not at all relevant to what was described in his course syllabus. (Those poor trees.) The class was supposed to be about Economics. Le Douche would also like to get my heart rate up by saying that he was going to teach us how to read stocks but, you know, that would drastically cut into his monologue, so… Anyhoo, my classmates and I—on the strength of this guy’s insufferable yakking—eventually bonded together. As the semester went on, during each “lecture” we would all turn to each other in deep confusion and total disbelief, absolutely mystified by what we were seeing play out right in front of us. It was just like in Fight Club: it was on all of our minds, we just hadn’t given it a name. There wasn’t even a name we could give it—but collectively we were all thinking, “Is he really just gonna sit there and talk the whole time and not teach us?” Dude was mum only for two days: our midterms and our finals… I know, I know. How can he administer a midterm and a final exam when all he did was talk ambiguously about “stuff” and never got around to teaching us anything? Well, I’m still trying to figure that one out too myself, to be honest—and how he calculated my final grade in the class: a B.

I dally with these stories because, to me, the recollection of them is interesting—not to mention the whole marketing angle which I’ve discussed in the past. So, as was the case with Preliminary Confession #1, the reader will have to once again practice patience, for I am in no rush to hasten to a close on what is my second preliminary question. And, like always, I ask that we turn our attention to this month’s stage play, Equus.

white horses running

Power & Grace

 

Title: Equus (1973)
Playwright: Peter Shaffer
Time Period: Early Postmodernism Period
Plot: A dispirited child psychiatrist attempts to treat an emotionally-troubled teenage boy who has committed a horrific act of animal cruelty.
Dope Line(s):

[Act 1.3]

DYSART
What did I expect of him? Very little, I promise you. One more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual. One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.

[Act 1.7]

FRANK
Yes, well that’s him. He’s always been a weird lad, I have to be honest. Can you imagine spending your weekends like that—just cleaning out stalls—with all the things that he could have been doing in the way of Further Education?

[Act 1.14]

ALAN
And he said ‘Behold—I give you Equus, my only begotten son!’

toy rocking horse

Hours of fun as a toddler…

Who knew the play involving animal cruelty would be so complex? Quite the shocking turn of events in this here series. I could say the same about my life right now, but that’s another story—and one I don’t want to get into… You know, it’s never a good feeling having to subject yourself to material that you’re strongly against. It rarely turns out positive, and, if anything, the whole experience just leaves you woozy. All the ordeal can ever do really is further cement your beliefs—that’s what pretty much ends up happening… I can be honest: I didn’t give this play much of a leg to stand on. I didn’t know if I would be in a strong enough place mentally to deal with the kind of imagery a story like this one evokes. Personally, I’m of the belief that there’s a special rung (circle?) in Hell reserved solely for those who are unkind to animals. I’m not quite full-on PETA about it—but, for Christ’s sake leave the damn animals alone!

Still, I was curious—and what good would this theater-review series be if it didn’t have a healthy mix of material? Considering my narrative hang-ups, I had to put them to the side for the interim in order to carry out this endeavor. Now that doesn’t mean that my nerves weren’t bad or that my stomach wasn’t in knots over having to read Equus (Latin for horse; Equus ferus caballus is the actual subspecies). Peter Shaffer did bless the world with Amadeus, I figured, so at least I knew that I’d be in the hands of a solid playwright.

And Shaffer did have quite the stunning writing career. Success in London, success in New York, success in Hollywood—the creative-type trifecta! Equus, in its heyday, left audiences speechless. Monumental when you consider it had over 1,000 performances… A little more trivia here: Anthony Hopkins was an original cast member in the New York production (1974). Oh, and the masks worn in The Lion King Musical were inspired by the masks used in Equus. Not bad, not bad… And near the end of Shaffer’s life (He died in 2016.) he gave the rights to Equus to prominent theater producer David Pugh who then went on to cast Daniel Radcliffe in one of the lead roles for the play’s revival (2007). At the time, it was still peak Potter and having Radcliffe in the play—in the buff!—was a no go for Warner Bros.’ execs, so he eventually had to drop out. (No lazy wand jokes here.)

half man half horse

The beast within…

Shaffer received the story by chance during a car ride through the English country side. A friend of his mentioned to him in passing that a teenage boy in the area had done something horrendous to a group of twenty-six horses at a local stable. Losing contact with the friend and not bothering to seek out the actual news story, Shaffer used the sparse details to recreate his own narrative, dropping the number of horses down to six and also exploring the realms of passion, (human/animal) sexuality, religion and sanity rather than the heinous act itself. Further backbone and heft were added through the old world Greek Stage tradition. He incorporated masks, miming, fourth wall-breaking and dance as well as a “faux” Chorus: the actors remain on stage the entire time, watching the story unfold along with the audience but also ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. Again, not bad. Not bad at all… As for the story, well…

equus poster

Chilling. Grisly. Disturbing.

The year is 1973(?) and at curtain we are to envision that we are in the office of Martin Dysart, a middle-age, overworked child psychiatrist at the Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital in South England. (This primarily is the location of the story though, technically, there are others. The stage design is sparse with only a single, main light shining down to the center of it that’s in the shape of a square.) Cigarette lit, he speaks to us (the real audience) and as small group gathered before him about a teenage boy he has been treating for the past month. He pauses mid-monologue, getting ahead of himself, and decides to go back to the very beginning, back to when he first became aware of the boy’s existence… Now this is one of the most highly controversial ways to start off a story—via flashback and with (voice-over) narration… In Hollywood, that is. (Remember, I have a script-reading background.) Flashbacks at the start of a screenplay are a huge red flag. It’s the tell-tale sign of a novice screenwriter. The next sign of a novice screenwriter is the use of voice-over narration—and speaking to the audience (“breaking the fourth wall”) does virtually the same function, when switching from the medium of Film over to Stage. In Film, seeing these two coupled together at the start of a screenplay would make a veteran script-reader cross his or her legs and let out a deep sigh of disgust. I actually started off my first (and only) short film [#shameless plug] in this fashion but will most likely avoid starting off a story this way again—and, of course, the subject matter… (That’s another long story and is strictly personal, and not a shot at anybody else.) Me, myself—I don’t get script-reader’s beef with flashbacks (or flashforwards or dream sequences for that matter) but I can kind of understand their frustration with voice-over narration, kind of… What seems like a simple story device can actually be quite cumbersome to work with once you get going. There are figuratively millions of books out there on how to use voice-over narration “properly” so by all means seek out the one you like. But here’s my take on voice-over narration having read over two-hundred screenplays that use it, hundreds of stage plays that break the fourth wall, and a plethora of novels written in first-person past tense:

(1) If the main character narrates the story, whether starting at the very beginning or at the “perceived beginning” (a flashback to a pivotal incident), we as the audience are robbed of any actual stakes (and possible tension). Basically, the main character survived. So to show us a scene—or several scenes—of near-death moments feels like a “cheat.” (To see a movie/play where the main character dies nowadays would take an act of Congress.)

(2) Who is the main character telling her story to? Because we (the real audience) don’t technically “exist.” Many new (screen-) writers fail to comprehend this notion. And not too many of them are ever that clever enough to make their main character cuckoo (i.e., the main character is talking to herself). And because of their failure to understand this story element, you can often tell that the jokes and dramatic beats were written for us and not the person the main character should be telling her story to, whoever that may be.

(3) Exposition. Basically, your main character will end up saying “stuff” (information that we need to know for story purposes) to people who should already be in the know. For instance, the main character will narrate for a bit then drop out to let a scene play out regularly. And in this scene you will get a line like: “So, am I going to see you tonight for dinner at eight?” Sure, the main character could be just saying this to confirm. But shouldn’t the other character in the scene know this info already and maybe want to discuss something else?

(4) This last one really curls the blood of many script-readers. If you have one character who narrates, who is often the main character of the story then we (the real audience as well as the person[s] being told the story; see #2) can only “see” the story from the main character’s point-of-view. So the moment you switch point-of-views it becomes a “cheat.” Ideally, voice-over narration is a way for the audience (and the person[s] listening to the narrator) to get inside of a (main) character’s head and see life through that character’s eyes—and no one else’s. This element gets botched the most. Midway through a script with voice-over narration, out of nowhere the main character has knowledge of things she couldn’t have known because she was either never there or hadn’t yet arrived at the location where those specific details would eventually come up. It’s a matter of sequencing. Some writers try to gloss over this by saying that because the main character/narrator is recollecting all that happened, the details of things she couldn’t possibly know of but somehow knows of them much earlier in the narrative are okay to state at an earlier time because she’s merely piecing a story together, albeit unreliably (first person mechanics automatically make this a reality), and she’s going to eventually find out that information anyway and a simple line of dialogue to clear up the matter when she does eventually find out the information in the correct scene is a simple-enough fix. It’s like a reverse lampshade, or something. But in my book, it’s still a “cheat.”

black-horse

The Dark One

Shaffer works all four of these with ease, tripping up a bit on #3—but that’s just me being hella nit-picky. However, the rest of the story hums… And of the five stage plays I’ve reviewed so far, Equus has the most complete story line: you have a world-weary doctor who is over it and doing the cliché one last job. Here it’s up to him to determine the fate of a teen who has done something monstrous to a team of stable horses, and he’s got roughly one month to make his final decision. The teenager in question is seventeen-year-old Alan Strang, who is a bit of a sicko in my opinion. I’m quite disturbed by what he did to those horses. I shiver thinking about how many more Alan Strangs there are out there today hidden in society doing this type of sick, twisted ish behind closed doors and away from cameras…

I would like to take this time to apologize in advance for what is going to be the vagueness of my review. Like Camille (could’ve done a tie-in but opted not to) — I think this is one you should read… But I also must issue a Trigger Warning along with that recommendation. There are two sequences—this being more a performance piece, and the showiest of the plays I’ve discussed—that are definitely worth your while. One is at the “midpoint” and the other is at what I take to be the play’s climax. These sequences make the play what it is and Shaffer’s descriptions in these moments (throughout as well) have sucked all the life force out of me. (I don’t know if I could’ve handled seeing this play acted out IRL.)

hobbyhorse

Giddy up!

Shaffer piles a lot on to his plate here in trying to get to the root of what would make Alan do what he did. I don’t buy any of it, and I don’t feel bad about making that known. The theme here—again, under the umbrellas of passion, sex, religion and sanity—is the seemingly senseless violence of our time. Yeah, I agree but with Alan it comes down to curiosity—that and he could get away with it because the creatures he lashed out on are virtually defenseless.

the_godfather_horse_head

Entertainment? Where’s the heck is PETA?

Having read Equus, I can’t help but look at this play differently now. I’m going to go against the grain here and take a Feminist angle, because I find it warranted this time around. Plot and narrative-mechanics wise, this play is another two-hander (forty-year-old man, seventeen-year-old boy) and the typical back-and-forth/will-they, won’t-they business is all solid. But there are some peculiar—and by peculiar, I mean off-putting—jabs at women kneaded not so subtlety into the dough… Both Dysart and Alan blame women for their sexual inadequacies; Dysart admits to a female colleague—on the job!—that he is impotent; Dysart’s boss (Hesther) allows him to go far beyond the doctor/patient relationship thus making her a pushover; Alan’s dad (Frank) blames his wife (Dora; Alan’s mother) for Alan’s behavior (effeminacy); it’s also suggested—strongly suggested—that a young woman’s (Jill) sexual advances are what may have caused Alan to go postal; Alan, himself, is even antagonistic towards a nurse and strikes his own mother… Look, facts are facts—coded or exposed. And Shaffer, not any of the characters in this here story, may have had some resentment (and possible outright hatred) towards women. Not to speak ill of the dead but it’s worth mentioning that Shaffer was homosexual, so… (That makes two gay writers for those keeping track of diversity.)

Well, it should be obvious that this story holds up… I mean, just look at what we’re doing to Mother Nature. Hell, look at what we’re doing to our own species… Sorry, I can’t be more inventive and extensive. Stories like this make me extremely depressive and question my existence… I get to wondering if our society is even equipped to handle grisly events like the one featured in Equus… This play was written and performed in the 1970’s, and like a cheating voice-over narration, I have working knowledge of the future so I know that we don’t per se… And I guess that’s what makes me so sad. Right now, some nut-job is getting ready to mistreat/torture an animal for no other reason than that he/she can. It’s absolutely infuriating that I or any animal-protecting agency can’t do anything to stop it from happening… It looks like this has shaped up to be another Color Struck moment where fun slips out the back door. *deep sigh* Tough material to trek through this month boys and girls and aliens… But make no mistake, Shaffer’s a genius playwright and the writing in Equus is phenomenal… It’s just the subject matter; I’m not a fan of this kind of stuff (anymore)… I’ll close by saying… Shit, I don’t even know how to close… And here it is National Pet Month and I just had to have this play slotted, oh boy… I’ll see you guys next month with something a little more upbeat… I should be all right by then… Next month’s stage play is from one of my favorite time periods: The Restoration.

stage-chair

‘Til June…

 

 

Rating: 3/5