Aug 5, 2010

[Theater] Equus (Repertory Philippines)

Equus (Repertory Philippines)A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

Okay, wrong play. But it's the only horse-related line that ever comes to mind when I think about horses and theaters. Perhaps now after watching this play, he jubilant shouting of "HA HA!" will come a close second.

As much as I love movies and more so musicals, I also maintain a healthy respect for traditional theater. There's just something completely different about watching a play from start to finish that no big budget Hollywood movie can ever accurately recapture. Sure, we don't have big special effects and over-the-top costumes when it comes to local theater productions, but they certainly know how to make the most of what they have in order to tell a story. That's where the real creativity comes in - suddenly an empty stage can become any location they require. A block of wood can become a pedestal worthy of a temple in the hands of a good theater actor, and thus the greater respect for this medium.

Despite this general love for theater, I have to admit that I've been generally dismissive of Repertory Philippines in recent years. I can't quite explain it - maybe it's because some of their show choices have felt weird to me or maybe I seek too much comfort in the familiar. Maybe it's because I'm not all that enthused by their current home theater, the OnStage theater at the older Greenbelt 1. Whatever the reason, it's generally kept me away from most Repertory Philippines productions - a bias that I think plays like this one will certainly help me overcome.

Equus (play)Image via Wikipedia
Equus is a 1973 drama written by Peter Shaffer that won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1975. It also won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Foreign Play. In recent history, people are probably more familiar with the play as the one in which Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame appeared completely naked for both London's West End and Broadway.

The starts with the startling case of young Alan Strang (Marco Manalac) having blinded six horses for no explainable reason. Rather than immediately imprisoning him, Hester Salomon (Roselyn Perez), a court magistrate, pushes the boy to be sent to child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Miguel Faustmann) instead. Martin grudgingly accepted the charge and starts his treatment of the rather disturbed young man.

Initially Alan isn't receptive to the sessions and chooses only to respond to Martin's questions by singing TV commercial jingles. In time, Martin begins to break down some of Alan's barrier and he starts to unravel the mysteries behind his past. As he begins to sort through Alan's home life with his highly religious mother Dora (Tami Monsod) and his taciturn and atheist father Frank (Jaime Del Mundo), Martin also finds himself discovering new things about himself in turn. Thus the course of the play ends up being like a mystery in its own right with Martin playing detective in Alan's mind while the young man probes into Martin's own mind.

I was very impressed about the intelligence clearly evident in the writing of this play and it certainly made for a thought-provoking albeit also rather heavy afternoon. The themes and ideals presented in the film were rather complex and mature in their framing. This is not some play that you can watch one lazy afternoon to unwind - instead it's a rather cerebral and philosophical piece that touches on religion and the individualism of children in a society that favors strict order over originality. But of course this has nothing to do with the local production but is just the beauty of the play itself.

For a local production, it didn't actually feel local, which is a good thing. After all, the play is set in some hospital in England and the actors involved (a number of them with Caucasian blood obviously) managed the accents well. Even the more, well, "native" talent were very much in character and helped make you think that a number of them belonged in the next Harry Potter movie. Yes, I'm looking at you Pheona Baranda!

Veteran Repertory actor Miguel Faustmann certainly demonstrated why he's become so successful in this industry. The play largely falls on him as protagonist and narrator and he certainly carried the bulk of the show on his shoulders. This was definitely something he did more than just well and I was definitely moved by his performance. The plight of Dr. Martin Dysart is not a simple one and is every bit as complex as Alan's when you get down to it and Miguel made sure it wasn't ignored.

And for the record, I absolutely loved Katski Flores as the Nurse. She so had the potential to steal a number of scenes but she knew how to underplay her performance while still demonstrating her skills as a thespian. Good job girl!

For the show that we watched, we had the good fortune to catch Marco as Alan and man was he something else! And I'm not talking about the nudity - it's all about the raw talent of this boy and the potential that you can't help but see in his performance. She, he may not have been the most polished actor but for one his age with no professional theater experience, he truly brought the role to life. So yeah, that was a pretty intense and scary performance that really made the character feel real. One can only hope that he'll continue to put this much passion and drive into all of his future acting ventures and not fall into the trap of playing typecast roles within the local movie and television industry.

The way the play was interpreted with Martin narrating the story one moment and then revealing he's actually telling the story to another person or colleague was a nice twist. It's a device that is often repeated in this play to great effect, seamlessly tying together narrative elements, flashback reenactments and the "present" time in terms of the story into one cohesive whole. Plus they made maximum use of the stage and their limited sets beautifully, leaving the audience to visualize and imagine for themselves the various locations, sequences and events, thus making the experience more involving.

I liked the costume concepts for the horses in the play and even the casting of players who were more than likely macho dancers or more physical male models instead of traditional theater talent. It's not like they had any lines after all - they just had to stomp about and look all animal-like. I wasn't too impressed with James Stacey as Nugget though. He wasn't as physically impressive as the other horses and I felt that his appearance would have been more significant than his ability to act. I didn't mind him as the English rider in the earlier part of the play -that still made sense. But as a horse? Not really.

The play certainly attempted to make effective use of lighting and shadows to create interest scenes. I feel more shadow play could have been done for the horses though - it would have added a different level to things as opposed to having them standing in the darker alcoves as they did for most of the horse scenes.

And as for the nudity? Well, it wasn't titillating, for one thing, which was probably a good thing. It didn't feel very shocking nor did it actually feel very essential. As my partner put it, they were pretending to be holding imaginary objects and doing things we couldn't see so why the need to resort to nudity at the end? Why did the last act have to be somehow more realistic? I understand that this was probably done to drive home the point of vulnerability or even the raw physicality of the act but that point didn't come across all that strongly during the performance we watched. It was more of a "oh, they're naked. ho-hum" moment.

Equus was certainly one of the better plays that I've seen in a while and that includes comparisons to non-Repertory Philippines performances. If they ever decide to re-stage it, you should definitely make the effort to catch it this second time around - it will certainly be worth your money. It gets 4 seemingly secret compartments in the set pieces out of a possible 5.
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