On one level, Joe Penhall's 1996 play Pale Horseis a not-so-unusual domestic drama about a man losing his wife and his subsequent struggles with grief.
But this is Penhall, one of those viscerally oriented, in-yer-face, English playwrights Rude Guerrilla theater loves to champion, which means there's plenty of sex, sauce, spankings, barroom beatings and dark humor to elevate Pale Horseabove the whining and crying that plague most plays about death, mortality and loss.
Still, the more lurid aspects of Penhall's play—along with his typically precise dialogue, which captures a less-than-genteel slice of London's social strata—aren't enough to make this a riveting piece, at least not in this production.
Pale Horse runs on two tracks: as brutally honest exploration of the inefficient way that Charles, the proprietor of a rundown London boozer, deals with the death of his wife; and as mediation on faith and spirituality in a time of cynicism and moral floundering.
But rarely do the tracks run side by side. The gritty realism of Charles' actions in the wake of his wife's death is undermined by the playwright's groping attempts to grapple with loftier themes. It feels like a classic case of a playwright trying to make his play bigger than it is.
This production, helmed by Steven Parker, merely adds to the play's ungainly structure. The set's realism—600 pounds of dirt and a decent enough representation of a London pub—is countered by the ominously portentous sound of late-model Johnny Cash croaking about the apocalypse and houses of pain. The acting, while quite solid at spots (Bryan Jennings does English as well as anybody in OC, maybe because he is) is occasionally hindered by a combination of erratic dialects and shrieking voices, making Penhall's dialogue hard to decipher.
To cop from another English playwright, there's plenty of sound and plenty of fury in Pale Horse,but what it ultimately signifies is tough to figure out, at least in this viewing.
PALE HORSE, PRESENTED BY RUDE GUERRILLA, AT THE EMPIRE THEATER, 200 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 547-4688. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 P.M.; ALSO THURS., DEC. 16, 8 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 18. $10-$18.