equusWhodunnit? This question has been posed to audiences for centuries of storytelling. Whether it’s a murder mystery or a comedic caper, there’s nothing better than finding out the truth by the journey’s end.

With his Tony Award-winning 1973 play, Peter Shaffer presents an intriguing variation on the genre. Equus is a chilling whydunnit that delves deep into the troubled mind of a man delving deep into the troubled mind of a teenage boy.

With its paramount production of Shaffer’s modern classic, Pittsburgh Public Theater gallops into its 43rd season with the force of a thousand charging stallions.

Holding the reins as director here is, of course, Pittsburgh Public’s artistic director Ted Pappas. Much to heartbreak of many local theatregoers, this season marks his last with the company. Luckily, Equus is a high note in Pappas’s PPT swan song. He delivers a perfectly paced and deliberately acted two hour and twenty minute evening in the theater.

Like any whodunnit, Equus opens with characters learning of a horrific crime. Like any whydunnit, the culprit’s identity is known to all from the beginning.

Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Daniel Krell as Dr. Martin Dysart
Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Daniel Krell as Dr. Martin Dysart

Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Daniel Krell) speaks directly to the audience about a case that has come across his radar. In a fit of mania, seventeen year old Alan Strang (Spencer T. Hamp) brutally blinds six horses with a metal spike. Dysart’s discussion of the Strang case is no longer abstract when court magistrate Hesther Salomon (the always compelling Lisa Velten Smith) basically drops the boy on Dysart’s doorstep.

In an effort to discover the method behind Alan’s madness, Martin turns to Alan’s parents, Frank (Timothy Carter) and Dora (Nancy McNulty). Martin quickly unearths Frank’s utter intolerance for the religion that Dora constantly thrusts upon Alan and the damage it has done to Alan’s mental state. After resisting for a while, Alan too opens up about his first real life experience with a horse outside of staring into the eye of the horse on the poster his dad gives him to replace one depicting Jesus’s crucifixion.

The experience of riding a stranger’s horse was transcendent for Alan and the start of his journey down an increasingly dark path. We learn that Alan meets a young woman named Jill (Jessie Wray Goodman), who works at a local stable and offers Alan a job there. Their instant attraction sparks something in Alan that brings his obsession with horses and his carnal desires to their inevitable violent conclusion.

Before you pick up the phone to call PETA, know that there were no horses harmed in this production of Equus.

The animals are portrayed by a sextet of strapping male actors (including Ben Blazer playing Nugget, Alan’s favorite horse) wearing elaborate foot and headpieces realized by costume designer Tilly Grimes. Pappas beautifully balances the pageantry of the horses’ many thrilling entrances with the grotesqueness of Alan’s twisted relationships with them.

Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Ben Blazer as the horse, Nugget
Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Ben Blazer as the horse, Nugget

The psychological cat and mouse game between Alan and Martin is made all the more exhilarating by the fact that, at any given moment, it is unclear who is the cat and who is the mouse. Pappas ratchets up the tension and finds tremendous meaning in the play’s gray areas. He pushes his audience and his actors to their very limits.

Equus is probably most famous for the 2007 Broadway production featuring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to find discussion of Radcliffe’s performance in the show than it is to find discussion and photographic evidence of Radcliffe’s nude scene in the production. While that scene is pivotal to the show and, in this production in particular, spellbinding to behold, it shouldn’t distract from the incredible amount of work that the actor playing Alan must put in before then to make that scene land.

It certainly does not distract from Hamp’s beguiling work because he is laid bare before the audience long before he removes his clothing. His Alan is a horrifying reminder of what can happen when parents attempt to craft their children’s minds in their own image. Carter and McNulty have separate vicious moments with Hamp, but their anguish in their roles as confused parents is unmistakably sympathetic.

Hamp fills the stage (an elegant metaphor for the industrial, prison-like recesses of Alan’s and Martin’s minds created by scenic designer James Noone) whether he’s in the fetal position under a blanket in the corner or commanding center stage riding high on Nugget’s back.

At times, it feels like Martin Dysart is the audience’s patient. A lot about Martin’s personal life and nightmares are revealed via monologue, but Krell very effectively uses the silences between them divulge the most about his complicated character. It is a tour de force role and he delivers a truly tour de force performance to match.

I left the O’Reilly Theater an even bigger fan of Equus than I was when I went in. It is a play that is relevant not because its subject matter is ripped from the headlines but because the various characters’ searches for deeper meaning in life and its ugliness resonate.

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production (literally for me) brought that point home. It’s no Trojan horse, it’s the real deal.

Equus plays at the O’Reilly Theater through October 29th. For more information, click here.

Photos by Michael Henninger

Ted Pappas’ Grand Finale at PPT

Tedheadshot (1)“I’m kind of crazy about this season,” says Ted Pappas of his 2017-18 programming for Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The company’s 43rd season is also his last as artistic director. Pappas aims to provide audiences with a journey of infinite variety and imaginative vision. His selections are consistent with the wonderfully balanced array of plays and musicals he has programmed at PPT for more than two decades. What’s his formula?

“It’s a simple bit of chemistry,” says Pappas. “I produce the way I like to attend.”

Pappas is simply celebrating playwrights, directors, and actors he loves for his own finale season.

“I made it extra special for me, the directors, and I hope for the audience.” He’s also providing some terrific roles of the actors who will appear at the O’Reilly Theater stage beginning Sept. 28 and through July 1, 2018.

His tenure is a run of substantive programming that is at once entertaining and thought-provoking. While Pappas loves both directing and choreographing (as he will again for PPT’s annual musical), he has a knack for crafting a season with broad appeal and inroads for even the youngest or newest theater goers.

Audiences members will move from the deepest regions of the human psyche to the peak of musical theater frivolity. Along the way, patrons will meet Vietnam hero, an American family at a holiday dinner, an unlikely couple, and some very silly Shakespeareans.

The first productions are all works that Pappas considers as three of the most acclaimed works in theater–all Tony winners for Best Play, presented “back-to-back”. They are followed by “three very special projects” that also reflect PPT’s range. These six major productions are complemented by a solo show with undeniable Pittsburgh roots.

equus“Each of the plays is a blockbuster and all are monumental,” says Pappas.

Pappas was thrilled at PPT’s popular run of Shaffer’s Amadeus, so to open the season he revisited the British playwright as Equus “speaks passionately to the transformative power of the theater…and engages the audience In such a visceral way.”

Decades before the innovations of War Horse, Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1973) called on actors to portrays horses that are central to the plot’s central incident. The compelling psychological mystery connects a disturbed stable boy’s violence and a curious psychiatrist. Pappas praises “the extravaganza Shaffer demands of the director and designers.”

In his 29th PPT appearance, Daniel Krell portrays Dr. Martin Dysart. Pappas says he chose Equus “especially for Dan” but also as the play “epitomizes the team work we’ve built over the decades.” Six men in sculpted metal heads and hooves portray the horses in a cast of 14 in Equus, running Sept. 28-Oct. 29.

humansFor this season, Pappas also observes that “the new plays seem to balance the comedy and serious so well.” This quality is a hallmark of playwright Stephen Karam’s work which includes The Humans, Tony winner for 2016 best play (and finalist for a 2106 Pulitzer Prize).

The play is bound to conjure some beloved yet uneasy family gatherings for audience members during its Nov. 9-Dec. 10 run. Pappas says it may seem like many family members are part of this play and admits the pre-holiday timing is fun.

A Brooklyn couple hosts Thanksgiving for family members from back home in Scranton, PA (the playwright’s own hometown). All the neuroses and doubt swirling around dinner tables today provide alternately comic and dramatic moments. Karman’s script has been praised for its honest realism and wit–qualities Pappas couldn’t resist.

He also knew the script was a strong match for director Pamela Berlin. She returns for her 11th production with PPT, having staged Clybourne Park, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Between Riverside and Crazy.

Pappas, who considers The Diary of Anne Frank “a very significant production for the company”, emphasizes that Berlin “attracts great designers and actors”. PPT is one of the first companies to stage The Humans following its Broadway success.

Layout 1And, no, Rocky Bleier didn’t have to “fight back” for another run of his solo show The Play at PPT; Pappas was eager to invite the Steelers legend to again “star in his own story”, Dec. 28-Jan. 6. He gleeful admits most any Steeler fan would love tickets for one of Bleier’s nine performances, calling The Play “a great night out and I’ve done your Christmas shopping for you!”

Layout 1In 2018, Pappas will both stage and choreograph A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a timely and infectious comedy that weaves all things classical with hysterical situations.

He directed Forum in PPT’s pre-Cultural District days two decades ago at the Hazlett Theater.

“In a way, it’s a ‘thank you’ from me to the company for allowing me to be part of the company for the past 20 years.” Pappas promises “a new production of a musical that is both funny and great to look at…frisky and delightful.” Forum plays Jan. 25-Feb. 25.

Layout 1City Theatre’s most recent artistic director Tracy Brigden returns to direct Heisenberg, her fourth PPT production and a director Pappas is “just crazy about.”

Heinsenberg was a surprise hit about a woman who falls for an older man after a chance meeting. Pappas saw the show and “got the rights while it was still on Broadway. I predict it will one of the most produced plays in American over the next two to three years” says Pappas. The title alludes to the physics of attraction in this two-character play by Simon Stephen whose work includes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Heisenberg is on stage March 8- April 8.

Layout 1Pappas has produced Shakespeare about every other season with a balance of comedies and tragedies. Along with Equus, Hamlet was still on Pappas wish list of future productions. He describes his final production as “a classic production and beautifully designed”, running April 19-May 20.

Once more, student matinees will bring young people to each of PPT’s offerings during additional matinees. Pappas considers students “the future of theater and our country.”

“We don’t believe in dismissing the potential of student audiences. They will see all of our plays. Student performances of Hamlet are already selling out,” says Pappas. “We create the audience of the future through these plays.”

abridgedAnd a fun finale to the whole season is the return of the Reduced Shakespeare company in their Will’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), May 31-July 1. What should we expect? What could possibly go wrong? Pappas says “pandemonium on stage at the OReilly!”

Pappas considers the Public as “one of my favorite audiences and theaters” but the season he’s created will demand much of him.

“I’d like to go out with a little bit of fireworks, Pappas says. “My hope is to hand off the company in a top condition.

“I’m taking my vitamins.”

About Season and Ticket Options

Each of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s six main productions run about four weeks, with The Play having only nine performance dates. Single tickets starting at $30 are on sale September 5 with some popular subscriber dates already listing limited seating. A wide range of tickets options including flex packages of just three shows as well as group and other discounts, including 70% savings for students and anyone 26 or under. Tips: Take the time to explore PPT’s ticket info for interesting options and events such as post-show talk backs. You might want to some varied seating in the 650-seat O’Reilly throughout the season. Most any seats closest to the stage (regardless of price or seat level) afford some interesting perspectives. Visit online at: ppt.org

Duquesne Red Masquers’ Ambitious 105th Season

105Pittsburgh’s oldest amateur theatre company, The Duquesne Red Masquers has quite the ambitious upcoming 105th season. Orphie and the Book of Heroes, The Busy Body, Macbeth and Equus would be a challenge for any professionally staffed company let alone a university company. Nathaniel Yost, Red Masquers’ President says “This upcoming season is going to be fantastic!”

The Red Masquers’ roots go back to the late 1800s. The company provides an opportunity for students to learn about and participate in theater regardless of their major, background or experience.

I asked Yost how they picked their choices for such a challenging season. “The Red Masquers, as part of a university theater program, has several missions to fill. The group presents plays from a wide spectrum of historical eras, styles, and types of drama. We try to choose plays that will be incorporated into class offerings in the semester that the works are being presented. We are also committed to developing and promoting new works of art, and we usually produce one world premiere a season. This year’s season was selected to showcase our talented seniors and alumni, as well as, co-ordinate with The National Conference of 18th Century Women Writers that will be hosted by Duquesne University.”

dasfefeOpening this season is Orphie and the Book of Heroes! a new musical by Duquesne alumnus Christopher Dimond.  Orphie was commissioned for and premiered at the Kennedy Center. This will be only the fourth production of the new musical. Jill Jeffrey who is Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Gemini Children’s Theatre directs. The musical follows the story of a young girl in Ancient Greece, who is obsessed with the stories that her guardian Homer has told her. She longs, though, to hear a story about a hero like her, a Great Girl Hero. When Homer is taken from her, Orphie sets out on a quest to rescue him from the Underworld, and discovers that the hero she’s been looking for might be closer than she thought. This one-act musical is filled with humor, unexpected character twists, and fun mash-ups of Greek Culture and our modern world. Orphie and the Book of Heroes is an entertaining musical for all ages.

Next is The Busy Body directed by John E. Lane, Jr., Director of Duquesne University’s Theatre Arts program.  Susanna Centlivre’s play is a fast-paced comedy with a good measure of wit. It is a laugh-out-loud, one-of-a-kind, social satire about people who can’t mind their own business. The Busy Body comes from one of the great female playwrights of the 18th century and is simply one of the most successful comedies of intrigue from its time.

The Busy Body, will be offered for The National Conference of 18th Century Women Writers.

The Red Masquers will produce One Acts for Charity. This is a group of one act plays directed and performed by the students of the university. The money donated during these shows benefits a local charity that will be revealed at a later date.

The second semester starts off with Shakespeare’s Macbeth which is directed by Duquesne senior Dora Farona! The “Scottish play” is a classical masterpiece of the macabre. Macbeth transforms as he resists and gives way to his ambitious urges, which lead him to be tempted into committing heinous acts. It is a dark and bloody show, filled with rage, grief, and an unquenchable thirst for power.

Macbeth will be the senior thesis project for several of the Theater Arts majors, Director Dora Farona, actor Nathaniel Yost (Macbeth), and Sound Designer, Anna Cunningham.

Following Macbeth, is Equus written by Peter Shaffer and directed by Justin Sines who also Serves as Technical Director of the Genesius Theatre at Duquesne and who also directs for Pittsburgh’s Summer Company. This stage show, which won winner 1975 Tony Award for Best Play, tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses.

Equus rounds out the season as a thought-provoking, modern play that challenges young scholars about both social structures and the nature of passion.

Finally, the Red Masquers close off their season with Premieres XLI! Premieres offers a time for any current student or faculty member to see their work on stage. After the plays are chosen by the directors, productions will begin with a collaborative process between the actors, directors, and writers. This will be directed and performed by students of the university.

The Red Masquers have a jam-packed season, everyone is invited to come enjoy some interesting theatre.

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.duqredmasquers.com/purchase-tickets

All productions are at the Genesius Theatre on the Duquesne University campus.