NEWPORT NEWS, VA—Second-grade students at Franklin Elementary School impressed parents, teachers, and fellow students with their recent production of Peter Shaffer's Equus Friday.
The avant-garde play, described by audience members as "adorable," was originally produced in London in 1973. The story revolves around troubled 17-year-old Alan Strang, played by Kyle Keever, 7, and his encounters with his psychiatrist after he blinds six horses with a metal spike. The play focuses on the causes underlying a seemingly senseless act of violence, and forces characters and audience members alike to confront questions of responsibility and ultimate meaning.
"The kids loved it," teacher and director Michael Komarek said. "Once they stopped screaming about horses getting their eyes gouged out and realized that it was just a launching point for more complex ideas about alienation from the modern world, they rolled up their sleeves and dug right in."
Despite its truncated 30-minute length and shoestring budget, the production—which received a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd of 65 in the school cafeteria—attested to the resonant themes of Shaffer's play.
"They really made it work," said proud parent Melanie Keever. "The producers achieved a very convincing effect of real blood spewing from the agonized animals' eye sockets using Karo syrup and red paper streamers."
"It tasted good, too!" said Kyle Keever, who was unable to resist licking some Karo syrup off of his hands during the eye-gouging scene.
With only nine speaking roles, there was some concern that the children wouldn't all get parts. However, the dream sequence—in which therapist Martin Dysart appears as a gold-masked pagan priest ritualistically cutting children's hearts from their chests—enabled every member of the class to get some stage time.
There were several moments of unexpected levity, such as 7-year-old Cheyenne Behling's inability to pronounce "Agamemnon."
"I had fun," said Behling. "I got to wear a fake beard."
Calling the show a "real hoot," the audience cheered the players on as the psycho-sexual nightmare unfolded. Many said they were pleasantly surprised by the deft execution of several more mature scenes, such as Jill and Alan's abortive sexual encounter in the stable.
"I am so proud of Bailey," said Roy DeForest, referring to his 8-year-old daughter, who played Jill. "She saw me with my video camera while she was doing the scene, and she smiled like she was the happiest girl on earth. But then she hopped right back into character."
DeForest added: "She's a little Julia Roberts!"
The performance was not without glitches. Early on, during a scene in which Alan is simultaneously in Dysart's office and surrounded by horses in the stable, a child portraying a horse lost his mask. In the ensuing confusion and giggling, Keever forgot his lines and fled from the stage weeping. Luckily, Komarek was able to coax Keever back onstage, and the re-entrance was greeted with thunderous applause.
"When Kyle screamed, 'Kill me! Kill me!' there wasn't a man, woman, or child unmoved," Komarek said.
During the cookie-and-Kool-Aid reception following the play, many agreed that Gina Helms, 7, was adorable with baby-powdered "gray" hair. Others reflected on whether Behling's stumble was a Method-derived interpretation of Dysart's internal struggle, or merely a happy accident.
Proud grandfather Jeremy Friedman said the fluorescent lighting of the cafeteria and the construction-paper set honored the play's original minimalist staging.
"I had the pleasure of seeing Equus on Broadway in the mid-'70s, and was struck by the lack of props and the portrayal of the horses by human actors," Friedman said. "I felt that the freshness of those innovations was honored tonight—and the kids looked cute in their little outfits."
Friedman added that the way the cast sat Indian-style around the periphery of the makeshift stage was "exactly the way it was done in the Hopkins-Firth staging."
Komarek, however, had his thoughts on the upcoming spring play.
"I love awakening the passion for drama and storytelling in the children," Komarek said. "Nothing's been finalized, but I'm eyeing Aristophanes' Frogs. I love the dislocation of verse in the play's stichic passages, and the kids love animals."