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Strider (11/14/1979 - 05/18/1980)


New York Daily News: "'Strider' fails to hit its pace at Chelsea"

"Strider" originally opened off-Broadway at the Westside Theater on May 31, 1979 and transferred to the Helen Hayes on November 14, 1979.

Gerald Hiken makes a fine horse, but who wants to look at a horse all evening, even one that talks occasionally? "Strider: The Story of a Horse," a moralistic Soviet play with music adapted from a Tolstoy story, opened Thursday at the Chelsea Westside, and while the production itself is in keeping with the imaginative efforts we have come to expect from the Chelsea Theater Center, the evening, especially the first and longer half, is a wearing one.

This anthropomorphic and didactic exercise in whimsy and pathos is the tale of the rise and fall of an outsider, a piebald named Strider, as played and told by Hiken and a good-sized cast made up, in great part, of other "horses" who neigh, sing, flick their tales, and comment with all the enthusiasm young actors bring to the stage under the misguided impression that such activity is, aside from the possible conquering of stage fright, of the slightest benefit to their craft.

The play opens and closes with, and occasionally returns to, a scene in which the decrepit old horse, limp beside a water barrel, is scheduled to be destroyed by a drunken, snoring old groom who has to be prodded awake by a stern overseer. In between, we get the story of Strider's life, of his shyness as a colt, his gelding, his prowess as a racer, his hard use by a profligate prince, and his eventual decline.

Hiken offers an amusing, and sometimes touching, caricature of the piebald, now shambling and now strutting, and calling to mind Harpo Marx.

But a little of this goes a long way, and we are grateful for those scenes more concerned with people, one in which the aforementioned prince, a wastrel member of the 19th century ruling class, is being shown a number of spirited mounts for sale, and another in which the same fellow, much to the annoyance of a passionate circus equestrienne, is repeatedly interrupting his lovemaking to take part in a Russian song being sung by four musicians hovering over the pair.

Besides Hiken's, there is deft comedy work by Gordon Gould as the youthfully arrogant prince, later a drunk and doddering one (the story's simple-minded moral is that dumb animals are both more admirable and, in the end, more valuable than man - especially pre-Soviet man, one gathers) by the leggy and elegant Pamela Burrell as the compliant bareback rider and other figures, including a chestnut mare; and by Benjamin Hendrickson as, among other things, an outrageously vain stallion.

The play is acted out on an empty white-winged stage on whose down-left corner four musicians (piano, violin, accordion, kettle drums) lay into the light-hearted songs and a couple of salon items with vigor.

Robert Kalfin, who collaborated with Steve Brown in preparing the English script of this story-theater piece, has staged it skillfully with the assistance of Lynne Gannaway. But the play doubtless possessed an appeal in its native surroundings (Kalfin caught it in Leningrad, where it had grown out of improvisations by the students of the Gorky Theater) that Kalfin has been able to recapture only flickeringly here.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "'Strider': A winning horse story"

"Strider" originally opened off-Broadway at the Westside Theater on May 31, 1979 and transferred to the Helen Hayes on November 14, 1979.

There is something perfectly magical happening at Robert Kalfin's Chelsea Theater Center. It is a play called Strider, and few plays have given me more pleasure this year. It is a gem, a discovery. It is very special. See it and relish it.

In 1977 Kalfin represented the U. S. on a Cultural Exchange trip to the Soviet Union. There he saw the Gorky Theater in Leningrad perform Strider, a work taken, quite closely it seems, from a Leo Tolstoy short story.

It was an adaptation by Mark Rozovsky using music, acting and mime. It was Strider, the Story of a Horse. Kalfin, understandably enchanted, set about getting an English translation, and together with Steve Brown, prepared an English stage version. It could become a minor classic.

The play is the story of life seen through the eyes of a piebald horse. The horse, despite its maverick coat, is a thoroughbred and a champion. It has been made a gelding, and its history, which he relates to the other horses in the stable is one of unexpected triumph and undeserved despair.

The organization of the play - its mixture of horses and humans - is most successful. And after all we haven't had a good play about horses since Equus.

But Tolstoy's motives here - his examination of man as animal in a special parable - are extraordinarily serious. Strider's life runs much the same course as his master's, a dissolute Prince. He has his moments of triumph - a horse race unexpectedly won, for example - but at the end he is in the knacker's yard, waiting to have his throat slit.

The subtext of the play is of course the suffering of Tolstoy's Russia, and what better symbol could he find that the fine horse, only disfigured by the genetic fault of being piebald. The epitome of the slave.

The concept of the play is brilliant. Horses and humans mingle as if they were one, and the music, adapted from the original Russian by Norman L. Berman, is totally in key with this sub-world of equine humanity.

As Strider, Gerald Hiken is given a magnificent performance, with glaring eyes, flared nostrils, and a look of triumphant defeat. This is superb.

Kalfin and Lynne Gannaway have directed the play with perfect sublety. Nothing is cute - nothing is overstressed. The performances are elegant. Hiken, naturally, stands out, Gordon Gould as the Prince, Pamela Burrell as a femme fatale, and Benjamine Hendrickson as Strider's nemesis, are all superb.

This is one of those evenings that makes one proud of the theater. Tolstoy and Chelsea. Do see it. It is about our lives.

New York Post

New York Times: "'Strider,' Story Of a Horse, Moves Up"

After 94 years, "Strider: the Story of a Horse" has arrived on Broadway. The Chelsea Theater Center version of Tol stoy's classic allegory about a noble piebald opened Wednesday night at the Helen Hayes Theater after a six-month engagement at Chelsea's Westside Theater. Cast and concept are the same; the production has been only slightly expanded to fill the larger stage. On Broadway, "Strider" remains an artful experiment in the magic of illusion - as well as a play with an uplifting message.

The title horse is beaten and abused because of his strange crazy-quilt appearance, but, like the downtrodden Russian peasant whom he represents, he is indefatigable. Drawn from Mark Rozovsky's Russian play - a continuing success in the Soviet Union - Robert Kalfin and Steve Brown's American adaptation is told, Story Theater-style, largely through the eyes of the horse. The show uses mime, music, dance and direct quotations from the original Tolstoy story. It is a horse opera and ballet, with music offered by a four-piece on-stage band, underscoring gypsy violins and accordion with the percussion of simulated hoofbeats.

This is the horsiest show in town since "Equus," and it shares with that drama an anthropomorphic attitude toward animals. Led by Mr. Kalfin and Lynne Gannaway as co-directors, the actors nuzzle shoulders, twitch their tails (a feather duster flicked in the air), whinny on cue, and, occasionally, also play people.

Pamela Burrell is a majestic filly, and Benjamin Hendrickson is the prancing showoff of the stable, preening like a star taking his solo bow after the corps de ballet has left the stage. Gordon Gould is the suave Prince Serpuhofsky, the man who discovers and then abandons Strider.

Strider is Gerald Hiken, and by now the two are interchangeable. Did this distinguished American character actor realize that it was a Russian horse that would bring him his greatest recognition?

Since he created the role in New York, Mr. Hiken has become, if anything, more equine, without overplaying the imitation. He is Everyhorse, not an elegant stallion, but clearly the best of his breed. At moments he is Harpo as horse, quizzically watching out of the corner of his eye as the prince inspects and rejects a team of more showy animals, knowing that eventually he will be the one that is chosen.

Later, when he wins a race while pulling a coach and saddled with a heavy rider, he offers a small grin of pride and a slight sigh of exhaustion. This is the happiest moment of his life, and, as he indicates with a shrug, it is soon to be followed by tragedy. Years later, sick and enfeebled, watching wistfully as his long-lost master is unable to recognize him, Mr. Hiken is funny and he is touching. One can say with equanimity that this is a thoroughbred performance.

New York Times

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