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Maine Masque takes the reins with Equus'

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Student production dark, challenging

ORONO One of the wonderful things about academic theater is the relative freedom it affords; there's a pervasive optimism that informs it. While it might be a touch raw sometimes, it is almost always passionate.

The Maine Masque, the University of Maine's student theater group, is full of individuals filled with that sort of passion. A show produced by the group independent of the faculty annually closes the mainstage season of UMaine theatre.

This year's offering is a production of Peter Shaffer's 'Equus,' running through April 7 at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus.

Martin Dysart is a psychiatrist at a provincial facility in England, specializing in work with children. His life changes when a young man named Alan Strang is brought into his office, alternating between sullen silences and angrily spouting commercial jingles. Dysart is informed that Alan has been brought here because he committed an act of gruesome violence against a stable full of horses; Dysart's job is to find out why.

He delves into Alan's case, even going so far as to reach out to the boy's distrustful parents. Slowly but surely, Alan gradually opens up to him. As Dysart tries to draw out the boy, he is at the same time bouncing his own doubts off his friend and sounding board, Hester. Alan begins to reveal more and more of the circumstances that led to his horrific crime. We meet the owner of the stable and the girl who helped him get his job there the girl for whom Alan felt more than he could understand.

And there, throughout all of it, are the horses. Alan's connection to horses is the key to unlocking his motivations, and Dysart is doing his best to unearth that connection. However, the cost of doing so might be much greater than anyone truly understands.

'Equus' is a memory play in many ways; so much of it takes place in the minds of the characters. That lends a dream-like quality to the story, and director Tricia Hobbs has taken full advantage. She has sculpted an elaborate and engaging dance; a theatrical ballet of sorts. However, she also clearly understands that that same dreaminess needs to be grounded and creates moments of stark reality to that end. It's an ambitious undertaking for any director, let alone a student, but Hobbs has acquitted herself well.

Dr. Dysart is a tough role to play, but Simon Ferland does a wonderful job of capturing the slowly burgeoning doubt of Dysart's journey. His shift from easy confidence to anxiety-ridden confusion happens slowly and gradually and believably. His palpable need to understand Alan Strang is the basis for the entire show, and Ferland shoulders that load with ease.

Clint Snyder, on the other hand, has a job even more difficult than Ferland's. Making an audience sympathize with someone like Alan Strang where to even begin? And yet Snyder draws us in. Even during the openly antagonistic onset, Snyder gives us glimpses beneath the mask. Furtive ones at first, then gradually longer and longer until we see the scared, broken boy that Alan really is.

Garrett Rollins and Isobel Moiles are perfectly dysfunctional as Alan's angry socialist father and deeply religious mother. Nellie Kelly is sweetly innocent as Alan's friend Jill; her moments with Snyder are tinged with the genuine awkwardness of young love. Moira Beale, Mary Ellen Blodgett and Jason Myers fill out the ensemble, bringing steadfastness, sassiness and surliness (respectively) into the story of Alan Strang.

And mention must be made of the horses. Led by Jackson McLaughlin, these horses actors wearing stylized horse heads are a constant presence. Their graceful movement is mesmerizing (and a bit unsettling, truthfully) and even when they are off-stage, they can always be seen in Alan's eyes. The commitment of these five (Stephanie Cahoon, Evelyn Fairman, Arletta Hayes and Dani Reider are the others) makes their time on stage all the more surreal by how firmly they are anchored in the moment.

Katie Doyle's scenic design meshes perfectly with the director's vision. Its looming, cavernous openings and myriad loops and ramps provide the perfect landscape for a world of vision and memory. And despite the abstraction, there is still an engaging aesthetic. Add to that the expressive lighting of Bradley Chelberg's design, full of nice contrasts of light and shadow, and you've got a haunting, memorable space. Special mention must be made to the work done by costume designer Mazie Pierce; the horse heads in particular are well-crafted and creepy and oh so memorable.

'Equus' is not for everyone; some mature themes are explored and there is some nudity. However, if you're looking to be challenged by a piece of theater, the Maine Masque would like to have a word with you. This is a show born out of real passion and it plays like one.

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