Opening Nights: Love Horse

Hot interspecies action and a serpentine plot.

How do you top a play whose protagonist morphed into a bird? If you're Washington Ensemble Theatre, you do it by following with some hot horse-on-human action. No, Love Horse is not a theatrical rendering of the Enumclaw bestiality cabal that made headlines in 2005 with its interspecies sex frolics. But, like Babs the Dodo in February, this show is as macabre as it is inventive. Whether you call it a good night in the theater depends largely on your ability to meet WET on its own turf. There are plays that demand suspension of disbelief, and Love Horse asks more of its audience than most. Brooklyn playwright Bryn Magnus wants us to believe, for instance, that the way to get deadbeats to pay is by hiring Tanner Hicks (Adam Standley) and his two-man crew (Alex Matthews and Ali el Gasseir) to perform a dance so unsettling that the viewer/debtor will do anything to avoid a repeat performance. These are not just So You Think You Can Dance moves, either—they're psychosexual excursions into sadomasochism, elaborately choreographed after an exhaustive study of each intended victim. There's collateral damage, though: After one such mission Tanner chips a tooth and returns to the dentist he just assaulted to ask for help. In examining him, Dr. LaGrange (James Weidman) discovers that Tanner has enough equine issues to make Equus look like a merry-go-round ride. To further complicate matters, there's the lovely Rita (Emily Chisholm) a sassy diner waitress who suffers no fools yet is smitten by the coltish young Tanner, who always orders granola and chews it with the air of a prince relishing caviar. As if all these goings-on weren't strange enough, the adopted Tanner learns that his birth parents (Jonah von Spreecken and Kate Kraay, who seem to pick up where Billy Crystal and Carol Kane left off as the bickering biddies of The Princess Bride) are pioneers in the field of DNA research. And because that's still not enough to leave you punch-drunk, director Makaela Pollock has the cast open Act 2 by lip-synching and dancing to Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River." That may sound disjointed, but somehow Pollock stitches it all together. The result is a bizarre little wormhole where dance can drive you insane, and people and horses are proven to be genetically closer than we've been led to believe. Kudos to the director for keeping audiences intrigued, and to her cast, which makes this hard work look like fun. Still, I have to stop and wonder: In the grand stable of possible plays to produce, the 2009 Love Horse was the one WET thought best worth its time and effort to, er . . . mount? Its humor is so arcane, its characters so far-fetched, and its plotline so serpentine that the company's satisfaction in taming this steed may be greater than our pleasure in watching it run.

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