The audience files out of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater ‘s production of Horsedreams wrapped in their own thoughts. Barely a word is spoken. We’ve just witnessed the harrowing, industrial strength disintegration of an attractive, upper middle class family from era-endemic, good-time, disco snorts to the thrall of insidious addiction.
Desiree (Roxanna Hope) is a club girl. It’s all about make-up, hair, heels, and “taking the floor,” when all eyes are on her. Foreplay is defined as champagne and coke (cocaine), both of which flow undammed. Loman (Michael Laurence), a white collar professional who parties…a lot, circles like a heat-seeking missile. She’s everything he wants. They do lines of coke on the dance floor and “roll on” in limousines…pretty, materialistic young women, well-heeled, horny young men… “We were like gods,” he recalls aching for the days… There’s no fourth wall. Characters speak to the audience as if alone on the stage, turning to interact and then back.
Loman seems decent, well employed and worships Desiree. They move to the suburbs, have a baby, stop going out, give up the scene. Family life is described by each turn as an oblivious he said/she said. Desiree is bored. Club life returns and so, unknown to her husband, does her habit…which escalates to accidentally include spiked heroin, ending in tragedy. (Desiree remains an effective stage presence, dreamed about by her son, recalled by the grieving Loman). The rest of the play revolves around Loman’s own gothic descent and its consequences to the boy, Luca (Matthew Schechter).
Except it’s not that simple. We recognize Loman and his privileged life and so are angrier than we might be were the protagonist an uneducated man from the ghetto (the usual suspect). His hell bent trajectory, complete denial, and paternal alienation is vividly described (the specificity is terrific) and enacted. The extremely talented playwright refrains from a mere piercing portrait, however.
Mira (Dael Orlandersmith), a black woman with ambitions to escape from her ghetto background through nursing courses, is hired to look after Luca and recognizes the situation. The way in which she handles her role in the dismantling family unit is painful and real, adding perspective. Nor are Luca’s own reactions played out as cliché. A precocious boy, he moves from innocence to fury taking matters into his own hands.
Playwright Dael Orlandersmith writes with visceral precision. The language of drug highs is lurid but unfussy. Her interesting construct is a bit like watching a fugue. Each character is, in essence, alone to understand and fend for himself despite appearances otherwise. The rawness of the piece increases with this realization. She doesn’t take the easy way out.
Director Gordon Edelstein is as aesthetically skilled as he is dramatically sensitive. In a situation ripe for overdoing it, he reins in his cast helping them physically express (Desiree describing her dancing is marvelous) without getting sloppy (even high.) Staging is always interesting and always in service of the play. Subtle visible signs of Loman’s deterioration work well. Desiree’s ghostly presence is impeccably used. The youngest actor never strays into performing.
Roxanna Hope (Desiree) is completely compelling. From sensual, rudderless, exhibitionism to the surprise and confusion of motherhood/normalcy her character might just have grown into, Hope creates a whole woman. Desiree seems so present, when she goes out like a candle it’s more shocking than it might be (given the situation) in the hands of lesser talent.
Michael Laurence offers us a Loman who begins like Big Bird as a frat boy and slides into witless conflagration. His portrayal of the loss of focus and connection and pyrotechnic response to being challenged is intense and frustratingly credible. Omnivorous hunger is unquestionable.
Dael Orlandersmith (Mira) stands firmly on set exhibiting her character’s life experience. Though less developed, the caretaker has an important part in the audience’s comprehension. Orlandersmith is aptly blunt, restrained, and damn angry.
Matthew Schechter (Luka) is terrific. His character’s journey from innocence through realization to action is one we take together because of the actor’s craft. There are times you can see Luca’s mind processing, or trying to process what’s inevitably going on around him. As written, lack of emotional outburst makes the character appear somewhat cold. Schechter imbues him with signs of a coping mechanism explaining this.
Takeshi Kata (Set Design) conjures the guts of the play instead of its linear scenario. A wise choice, this forces the audience to concentrate on the drama without distraction. Strong, almost violent visualization (open to interpretation) remains omnipresent. The toy horses are a great touch.
Horsedreams is vigorous, convincing, and enraging in a production that does it justice.
Photos, Sandra Coudert, from top:
1. Michael Laurence and Dael Orlandersmith
2. Roxanna Hope and Michael Laurence
3.Matthew Schechter, Michael Laurence, and Dael Orlandersmith
4. Michael Laurence, Roxanna Hope, and Matthew Schechter
Horsedreams by Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
With Roxanna Hope, Dael Orlandersmith,
Michael Laurence, Matthew Schechter
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place