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Monday, November 15, 2021

Taking It in Stride

From the Theater Vault Dept.: During its brief tenure at the Cohoes Music Hall, Heritage Artists, under the inspired direction of Robert Tolan, turned out one fantastic production after another. If they’d been located in an area that appreciated the arts, they would have blossomed into something much bigger.


THERE IS A LONG, POIGNANT moment near the end of this play when Strider, a piebald horse, recognizes his former master, Prince Serpuhofsky. Both are old and disheveled, “put out to pasture.” Possessor and possession, each now lacks the necessary other. But only the one-time possession recognizes the tragedy of the situation.

Charles Turner

The moment lasts just long enough to make us nervous even as we wrestle with mixed feelings about our own self-defining material goods and abstractions. It’s a moment we only can experience in live theater, and if that moment moves and enlightens us, then this is what live theater is all about.

“Strider” sings a song that informed much of Tolstoy’s work, and this stage adaptation has the added zip of an attractive score with a very Russian flavor. Tolstoy was concerned with the serfdom system, and the allegory moves right into the 20th century with the use of a Black actor in the title role.

Charles Turner plays the part in a black-and-white costume with a streak of clown white across one side of his face. He is the oddity in the stable, the stallion who is not allowed to breed. But he is a stallion of noble lineage who can’t accept this system of possession, passed as he is from the Count (Doug Tompos) to a groom (Lloyd K. Waiwaiole). And he can’t separate breeding from loving, an emotion stirred by the mare Viazapurika (choreographer Deborah Stern). Strider competes for her attention by racing another stallion, Darling (Tompos), and wins the race even as he loses the mare to his treacherous opponent.

Thus is nobility doomed: the set-up is mirrored later when the Prince (David Edwards), who recognized Strider’s commendable characteristics, pits his horse in a race against the horse of an upstart Lieutenant (Tompos again, in the third of his three roles). Strider wins as the young officer decamps with the Prince’s mistress. But the Prince’s failing, in this case, may have been in regarding the mistress as a possession.

This is a thought-provoking story, endearing on the surface, troublesome when you dig a little beneath and confront your own experience with betrayal and possessiveness.

Heritage Artists producing director Robert W. Tolan has placed the show on a raked wooden stage with the barest suggestion of stalls on either side. Lights, sound, and a few carry-on props denote the changes of setting. This presentation works beautifully in the small Cohoes Music Hall; the production is so streamlined that anything more would be superfluous.

Turner is a dynamo in the title role, going from high-kicking foal to brooding old plug with a voice and manner worthy of Shakespeare. Edwards, seen last season in an impressive variety of roles, is at his best yet as the Prince. When he and Turner play a scene, the energy is gripping. Both take a very good characterization and push it into a bravura realm without ever losing control.

They are surrounded by an equally worthy cast: Gary Gage in the dual role of stableboy Baska and Britisher Mr. Willingstone, David Beditz as an impressive General (doubling as a track announcer), and Tom Brennan, especially convincing as the Prince’s valet/groom, Feofan.

Tompos and Stern weave through three roles apiece as they tantalize and betray our heroes. They both perform with the panache of seasoned veterans but wearing new, unfamiliar faces.

Marty Jones returns from last season as pianist and musical director, this time with a robust ensemble made up of violinist Michael Keating, percussionist David Pollock, and John David Tanis on accordion.

Two of the ensemble members also play guitar: Jeff Penque and Maria Michaels are part of the gypsy ensemble that serves as a chorus, and Michaels has two lovely, self-accompanied solos as well.

It’s the company’s policy to end the season on a light note. With Strider, they have begun on a note that is both fun and bittersweet, and ultimately very memorable. The show runs through Nov. 16.

English stage version by Robert Kalfin and Steve Brown
Based on Tamara Bering Sunguroff's translation of a Tolstoy story
Directed by Robert W. Tolan
Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes, NY

Metroland Magazine, 6 November 1986

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