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Intimate look into darkness

July 10, 2009|David C. Nichols; Philip Brandes; F. Kathleen Foley

Transcendent craft distinguishes "Equus" at the Chandler Studio Theatre. This incisive chamber revival of Peter Shaffer's much-lauded spiritual psychodrama meets spatial limitations head-on, with exceptional results.

Superbly directed by August Viverito, the ultra-intimate approach honors the published text and John Dexter's original 1973 staging. We flank a central platform that vaguely suggests a boxing ring, horse-head masks hanging above. Child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Jim Hanna) notes teen Alan Strang (Patrick Stafford), first seen embracing "one particular horse, called Nugget" (Aaron Misakian).

In direct address, Dysart avers how deeply Alan, remanded to clinical observation after blinding six horses with a metal spike, has shaken him -- "The extremity is the point!" Court magistrate Hesther (Gretchen Koerner) leaves her front-row bench, from where all characters besides Dysart and Alan watch the play unfold, and "Equus" begins its trek into the shadows of the human psyche.

Viverito resourcefully meets Shaffer's specs, invaluably assisted by lighting designer Ric Zimmerman. The tiny venue demands absolute concentration, which Viverito's ensemble certainly delivers, with Hanna and Stafford beyond praise. Hanna conveys a passionate eloquence that perfectly underscores the tragic irony of Dysart's situation. Stafford, who has the face of a Maxfield Parrish youth and the intensity of a live grenade, is a major discovery as Alan.

Karen Furno and Skip Pipo as his parents, John Joyce III's stable owner, Michael Rachlis' nurse and Lauren Schneider's pivotal co-worker complete an invested cast. Their seamless work pulls us forward in our seats with riveting power and spurs this extraordinary miniature.

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David C. Nichols --

"Equus," Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays, beginning July 26. Ends Aug. 22. Contains nudity. $22-$25. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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Slapstick with a Greek accent

When the Greek chorus of "The Wasps," harmonizing like a barbershop quartet, promises "an old-time comedy," it's not kidding -- Aristophanes' classic satire has been running, off and on, since 422 BC.

The actors preparing to stage the piece may coyly admit at the outset that they'd prefer something more modern, chalking the choice of material up to affordable royalty fees. But there's nothing arbitrary here -- director-adapter-composer Meryl Friedman knows exactly what she's doing with her witty, freewheeling vaudevillian update. Originally commissioned to inaugurate the 2006 opening of the indoor auditorium at Malibu's classical-themed Getty Villa, the production has been remounted at the Lost Studio Theatre.

Highbrow purists need not apply -- Friedman and her seven-man troupe gleefully gut the text as they set out to recapture the irreverent spirit of Aristophanes' style of comedy, more closely aligned with modern slapstick than heavily footnoted academia.

All you need to know by way of background is that in ancient Athens, juries consisted of retirees bribed by the state, whose invariably harsh, stinging (and irreversible) verdicts earned them the nickname of "Wasps."

One particularly cranky juror (Peter Van Norden) goes by the name of Pro-state (out of his sense of patriotic allegiance), making him the target of awful puns ("Are you Prostate?" "No, I'm standing up"). The story, such as it is, involves the efforts of his upstart son (Albert Meijer), an Elvis Presley-style crooner, to get Dad to renounce his vocation, get a social life and preside as judge over the trial of their family dog (Robert Alan Beuth), accused of stealing cheese. John Apicella, Mark Doerr, Hubert Hodgin, Steve Totland and music director-accompanist David O do their skillful best to ensure that plot intricacies never obscure the prime directive that stupid is good.

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Philip Brandes --

"The Wasps," the Lost Studio Theatre, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 26. $27.50. (800) 838-3006 or www.thewasps.net. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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Familiar success story inspires

Author Joe Queenan, whose abusive, alcoholic father made his upbringing a living hell that Queenan chronicles in his memoir, "Closing Time," has some salient counsel for those born into similar circumstances. "If you're born poor," Queenan advises, "you'd better start reading."

For R. Ernie Silva, an early appetite for books proved redemptive. It's been a long road from the Bushwick projects of Brooklyn, where Silva was raised, to the Odyssey Theatre, where his one-man show, "Heavy Like the Weight of a Flame," co-written by James Gabriel and directed by Mary Joan Negro, is playing.

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