The Answer is Horse
nytheatre.com review by Michael Bettencourt
July 19, 2006
The Answer is Horse, produced by The Emergency Theatre Project and written by Julia Holleman, with help from Katie Naka and the cast, is a didactic theatre piece about the pitfalls of obedience. Director Joya Scott uses the conclusions of Stanley Milgram's Behavioral Study of Obedience (1963) as the work's theme and draws the title from one of Milgram's transcripts.
She then employs a number of theatrical variations on that theme, including direct audience address, monologues, parodic songs, a Bible skit about Adam and Eve, and videotaped segments, to name a few, to present an agenda of mini-lessons that each hammer home Milgram's observation in a 1974 article that "the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding... most urgently demanding explanation."
The Answer is Horse has an ambitious reach. Adolf Eichmann, Lynndie England of the Abu Ghraib fiasco, Lt. William Calley and Captain Ernest Medina of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and Gretchen Brandt and Fred Prozi from the original Milgram experiment are just a few of the characters who show up, along with references to the killing of Kitty Genovese, Hannah Arendt's remark about the banality of evil, and the currency trading that led to the fall of the Malaysian bhat.
Interspersed among these mini-lessons about obedience and authority are recreations of the Milgram experiment, using Brazil-looking retro machinery by Bill Brown and Robert Gagliardi to stand in for Milgram's shock boxes.
The core problem with The Answer is Horse as a theatrical work is voiced by one of the actors, who at one point refers to "the thesis of the show." As a thesis show, Horse is constructed to declare moral dilemmas rather than explore them dramatically. The presentations are earnest and heartfelt, with the competent ensemble cast of Elizabeth Days, Nat Cassidy, Russell Feder, Cody Lindquist, Katie Naka, and Albert Sanchez, Jr. working hard at every moment to underscore the seriousness of the task at hand. But the material never gets beyond the feel of a lecture, and not necessarily a good one at that. Writer Holleman and director Scott treat all forms of obedience as being cut from the same cloth, which is intellectually dishonest as well as artistically tedious. There is a world of difference between Eichmann's work in the death camps and the 38 people who failed to come to Kitty Genovese's rescue, and it's that "world" that the play ultimately fails to adequately explore.
British playwright Howard Barker rails against modern theatre's tendency to be a "regime of light," wherein all things are revealed in order to relieve the audience of any anxiety brought on by ambiguity or confusion. Horse sheds too much light; because all is revealed, there is nothing left to ponder. But there is a moment in the show that might act as the kernel for a real dramatic play as opposed to a theatricalized lecture: when Feder, as stout little Fred Prozi, sweats out his painful anxiety while being watched over by the smiling vulture in the white lab coat (Sanchez). That stink of worry overawed by that cool smug grin—that moment gave flesh to the thesis, and for the first and only time during the performance made me wonder about my own capacity to be one or the other of those torturers, or even both at the same time. And that was an ambiguity worth going to the theatre to get.