Immersive production of 'Equus' at the Acre bares skin and souls

Immersive production  of Equus at the Acre bares skin and souls
Photo by Matthew Mendel

If you're a regular Live Active Cultures reader, you're already aware of my interest in the intersection between interactivity, immersiveness and alternative environments in the arts and entertainment. So it will come as no surprise to learn that I – like so many others – had to be among the first to experience the highly anticipated new experience that debuted last week. For a change, it led me to turn off the television and get off the couch on Friday evening. Following the map on my iPhone, I found myself drawn to an unfamiliar part of town, where other like-minded people were wandering around outdoors, enjoying the sounds and scents of nature while eagerly awaiting the appearance of fabled creature: a horse with the soul of a mythological god named "Equus."

Don't bother searching your Pokédex for this ultra-rare beast. The augmented reality experience I'm referring to doesn't drain your smartphone's battery, nor does it suffer from incessant server crashes, though it has been filled to maximum capacity nearly every evening. Most importantly, the figures in this imaginary universe don't simply appear as crude cartoons on a screen, but are flesh-and-blood actors (emphasis on the flesh) standing close enough for you to see their, uh ... Pokéballs. It may not be attracting the worldwide media attention of a certain Nintendo app, but I feel lucky that I was lured to the Acre on Edgewater Drive by producer-director Jeremy Seghers' intimate staging of Equus.

The award-winning 1973 drama by Peter Shaffer is narrated by Dr. Martin Dysart (John Edward Palmer), an English child psychologist frustrated by the futility of his career and fading marriage. His new patient, Alan Strang (Michael Thibodeau) is a shy, sensitive teen who has savagely blinded a dozen horses at the stables where he worked. Strang's strident socialist father, Frank (Jason Blackwater), doting but dogmatic mother, Dora (Olivia Demarco), and gruff ex-employer Dalton (John Moughan) each offer their own explanations, as does Dysart's clench-jawed jurist confidante, Hesther (Jenny Ornstein). But it's only by coaxing Strang into reliving his fateful date with comely co-worker Jill (Fabiola Rivera) that Dysart can uncover the unconventional bond between Alan and a horse named Nugget (Jack Kelly) that motivated his unspeakable act.

With its unblinking exploration of the perils of adolescent psychiatry and the slippery definition of normality, Equus has much in common with A Clockwork Orange, which Seghers presented earlier this year in a similarly immersive, atypical venue on I-Drive. "I think I'm working through some stuff," Seghers joked to me after the performance, before explaining that Equus "was a play that I wanted to do for a while, and then I learned of the venue." He discovered the Acre, a rustic compound of tropical gardens and tin-roof sheds which is typically rented for wedding receptions, through actor-director Scott Browning, whose Howler's Theatre mounted The Tempest there in 2014.

Seghers picked the complex's smaller barn-like structure for a theater to "make the cramped feeling a part of the experience" and set the action inside Alan's equine-obsessed psyche. The result is an organic sensory experience that starts as soon as you step inside and take a deep breath. "It's got a smell that comes with the hay and the burlap sacks," Seghers admits, and it's augmented by the anemic air-conditioning. Seghers makes smart use of the confined quarters, creating dramatic tension by blocking actors to hurl dialogue over the audiences' heads (inspired, he told me, by the fort bombardment scene in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride).

A caution to claustrophobes; with the stage only inches from the front row, this show is a physically and emotionally stressful experience, especially if you are big on personal space. But for me, any discomfort was worth enduring, largely thanks to Thibodeau's raw portrayal of Alan. Thibodeau, a regular on the Orlando Repertory stage and a featured performer in Universal's Bill & Ted Halloween show, makes a successful move from teen thespian to adult actor with this role, much as Daniel Radcliffe did in the 2009 Broadway revival. His haunted eyes and awkward affect initially recall serial shooters like Dylan Roof, but Thibodeau gradually peels back Strang's mask to reveal the pitiable person within.

Thibodeau's soul- and skin-baring performance is surrounded by a solid if somewhat uneven supporting cast, with the occasional inconsistent accent or flat delivery slightly distracting from an otherwise polished production. I found Palmer's Dysart overly mannered and remote for much of the play, but he valiantly fought through florid monologues dense with Hellenic allusions to successfully connect emotionally by the ending. And while seamless scene transitions contributed to a generally peppy pace, momentum unfortunately flagged in both acts' ecstatic finales just as it should have accelerated. Forgivable flaws aside, Equus was well worth seeking out the Acre for, and left me excited for Seghers' next project: a staging of Dracula set inside a taxidermy store-slash-fetish club on OBT. Try to top that, Pikachu!


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