‘Mare Rider’ examines demands of women in masterfully created ambiance

Published 8:15 am Thursday, October 19, 2017

You’ve probably never seen goosebumps rise on an actor’s skin as they perform. I hadn’t either until attending Tuesday’s dress rehearsal of “Mare Rider,” a unique theatrical production opening in Danville today and running for a pair of weekends.

I’ve never seen a play that was more intimate with its audience than this one, which is being performed in the central room of the famous Jacobs Hall building on the campus of the Kentucky School for the Deaf. The audience’s seats, which max out at around 50 per performance, crowd in on a small performance area, no more than 14 feet wide on each side. The cast of four is at times so close to those in the front row you can study the details and lines of their faces or hear the brush of their clothes as they move.

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The cramped space is by design — it amplifies the intensely personal nature of the story: A successful businesswoman, Selma (Kristina Ives), tangles with an ancient mythical demon, Elka (Sharon Sikorski), in her nightmares as she lies sedated in a hospital following the stillbirth of her son.

Ives and Sikorski pull no punches in their lead performances. You will not feel comfortable or distant from what is happening; you will feel as though you are getting a small piece of the real anguish experienced in the aftermath of such a painful event. Still, Sikorski’s role as a “banshee” or “trickster” type of mythical, ethereal being keeps a less connected feeling of mystery and wonder floating throughout the performance, as well.

This being a Scarlet Cup Theater production, it’s performed in a unique, real-world location that wasn’t designed for theater. The first two Scarlet Cup shows happened at the Third Street Methodist church building and Mallard’s restaurant. “Mare Rider” takes place on the first floor under the central spire of Jacobs Hall, with floor after floor above receding to the sky above the actors’ heads. The historic structure is an excellent choice, providing a slightly haunted atmosphere that no building built for theater could accomplish. The layers of balconies above the performance space create a sense of infinity that lends authenticity to the idea of experiencing dreams, rather than reality.

As Elka and the other two characters — a nurse (Caitlyn Waltermire Leonard) and Selma’s husband Mark (Walter Eng) — enter and depart from scenes, they emerge from and vanish into the barely lit hallways and staircases behind the audience’s seats. At times when she isn’t part of a scene, Elka can still be seen by some of the audience, perched halfway up a flight of stairs or cloaked by shadows in a hallway as she watches from a distance. This production choice is a master stroke that completes the feeling of the audience itself being enveloped by, even trapped in the performance. 

Director Anthony Haigh told me this is the first time that “Mare Rider” has ever been performed in the U.S. He first saw the play himself in London in 2013 and “came away thrilled with the play and the ideas it exposed and wanting desperately to direct it,” Haigh wrote in his director’s notes that are printed on the play’s program.

“Mare Rider” is a female-dominated play that examines the many demands made of women these days — to be successful in their jobs, to excel despite the sexism that all too often creates double standards, to be a good wife, to be a good mother … the characters express frustration about how society has been constructed around them; they reveal cold, animalistic thoughts rarely spoken out loud. The play explores the edges of nihilism but never tumbles all the way down that rabbit hole. It resolves in a resigned yet optimistic manner that leaves you thinking, after the actors have taken their bows, about the human will to go on no matter what.


“Mare Rider” opens 8 p.m. tonight  at Jacobs Hall on the campus of the Kentucky School for the Deaf. It continues Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, and 8 p.m. Oct. 26-28. For both Thursday performances, the award-winning KSD culinary arts team will sell homemade treats as a team fundraiser. For tickets, visit scarletcuptheater.org or call (859) 319-1204.