Crazy Horses

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

With the holidays - and the stress that accompanies them - fast approaching, it might be a good time to talk about mental institutions. In the next few weeks, there will certainly be a point where you-ll be convinced that someone you-re dealing with, a store clerk, coworker, or in-law, should be institutionalized. And perhaps, if things get stressful enough, you-ll even be wishing that you yourself could spend some time in the asylum, as it might seem like an oasis from the insanity of society at large.

If you get these urges, the best therapy might be to visit one of two theatrical productions currently running here in the Southland which are set entirely in mental institutions.

The first of these productions is set in a California State Mental Facility. Stephen Sachs' play Open Window is about a disturbed, deaf patient (who may or may not have killed his abusive father) who is incapable of communicating with anyone. Enter two rival doctors, both of whom want to help the patient speak for an upcoming trial. But here-s the catch, both of the doctors are deaf too.

This is an interesting conceit for a play, especially since the dialogue between the two doctors is entirely communicated in ASL: American Sign Language.

Open Window was developed in association with Deaf West Theatre, the company responsible for the landmark show, Big River, which mixed sign language and singing in such a novel fashion that it eventually moved to Broadway.

Sadly, Open Window will probably not transfer to Broadway, as neither the play - nor this production - has the invention or theatrical spark of Big River.

Not being able to understand sign language, I can-t say whether the deaf actors were convincing in their signing - though, I can say that the English translation, spoken aloud by two non-deaf actors, was not performed with any distinction.

Also, I question the choice to have the signing translated into spoken English. If the play truly wanted to convey the power of sign language - and recreate a conversation between two deaf people on stage - wouldn-t it have been more novel (and appropriate) to use supertitles? The silence in the theater would have focused the audience-s attention on the gestures and acting - rather than the spoken words - and let the expressive power of sign language speak for itself.

Sachs' play doesn-t contain much in the way of subtext, though it does touch on the familiar theme of psychologists following their patients into madness. This is also one of the themes in Peter Shaffer-s contemporary classic, Equus, which is set entirely within the grounds of the Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital in the south of England

Equus is a long, introspective play that was a major hit on Broadway 30 years ago with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. Here, in a new revival staged by East West Players, the role of Dr. Martin Dysart is performed by George Takei. Takei is of course famous for playing Sulu, the navigator in Star Trek. Unfortunately, Takei can-t steer a British accent as skillfully as he can the Enterprise; but the actor is a veteran of the stage, and his performance is assured if nothing else.

The rest of the cast does not share Takei-s ease on stage. Director Tim Dang provides some interesting visuals, primarily in the form of six studly actors playing the equine characters; but the rest of the performers often look lost in Shaffer-s decidedly British text. There-s a great deal of old-fashioned English repression in the play, but the cast is rarely able to evoke these delicate emotions.

Shaffer-s well-crafted whodunit, or perhaps more accurately, his well crafted whydunit, still holds one-s attention on stage; but two-and-a-half hours spent in a mental hospital - without much psychological insight - is enough to make any theatergoer, well, a little crazy.

Equus continues through December 4th at East West Players and Open Window runs through November 20th at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.