Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Shadow Horse Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Bright Half Life and Pericles

Craig Hostetler
Photo by Rich Molby
The production of Trainspotting now playing at the Phoenix Theater was my introduction to the work of Shadow Horse Theatre, now presenting its third mainstage season. Based on this show, I look forward to future Shadow Horse work. Their Trainspotting is taut, articulate, energetic and gripping. This theatrical level is especially impressive as it is accomplished in a stark production, almost solely through attention to text and character.

Trainspotting was adapted by Harry Gibson from Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel by the same name, though is probably better known by way of the 1996 film. Set in Edinburgh during the 1990s, the story revolves around Mark Renton, an engaging young man in his early to mid-twenties, whose strongest identifying attribute is addiction to heroin. Through Mark we meet his circle of slacker friends, drug users and dealers. Tommy is Mark's childhood friend, a relatively clean-cut jock who turns to using smack after being dumped by his girlfriend. There is Francis Begbie, perpetually agitated and self-absorbed, whose hair-trigger temper is likely to explode in violence at any time. Simon Sick Boy Williamson is a user and con artist, running through drugs and women with equal disdain, using good looks and charm to conceal his shallow existence. Allison is totally lost to her addiction, unable to focus on anything beyond her chemical needs. Between highs she seeks comfort in sex, but states that sex doesn't come close to the exquisite release she gets from a hit.

The play begins with Mark waking up in bed at the home of his girlfriend to discover he has been sleeping in a pool of his own excrement and vomit, with no memory of how he got there. When the young lady calls him to join her and her parents for breakfast, Mark thinks fast to conceal the mortifying situation—though not fast enough, as his bodily wastes fly across the dining room. This is typical of the episodes we witness: whether well intended or self-serving, everything Mark and his mates try to accomplish ends up sabotaged by their addictions. Allison freaks out in horror when she discovers the dead body of a woman wrapped in the bedding of a drug-haunt. Mark looks at her tenderly, wanting to hold her and provide comfort. But all he can do is cook up another fix to mentally erase the pain and emptiness that surrounds him.

Mark makes several efforts to go clean, and after his older brother is killed in military duty, Mark's mother commits herself to saving her surviving son. The struggle to give up the drugs, and the many ways in which relapse can happen, is well documented. In a highly visceral scene, Mark uses an opiate enema as a way of easing back from shooting up. The opium has the desired effects on Mark's mind, but he had neglected to consider the effects of the enema on his bowels, and he has to grapple through a pool of excrement to retrieve the two tablets, which he declares suitable for re-insertion. Clearly, this life, which also includes such woes as HIV and prostitution, is lived in a very raw state.

The cast of six actors breathe life into the primary characters they play as well as smaller roles they take on. In particular, Craig Hostetler as Mark exudes likeability and intelligence, modulated by a history of low expectations and disappointment. In spite of the huge character defects in each of his companions, Hostetler believably conveys Mark's true affection toward them. Also noteworthy, Josef Buchel's Tommy has a sweet core that is condemned to desolation. Mathew Kelly plays Francis Begbie as a manic rant, firing out obscenities and cockamamie notions with machine gun rapidity. Kate Zehr paints Alison's pathetic submersion into her drugs, but also with some wickedness, as when, working as a restaurant server, she takes revenge on a trio of visiting English gents who have treated her with extreme rudeness.

Peter Beard has done an excellent job as director of moving fluidly from one scene to another, with a slim thread of narrative connecting the various characters and events, which are more successful as bits of evidence with which to both condemn and gain insight into the devaluation of life that accompanies a drug-fueled existence. He has guided his cast to create searing stage images of drug use and its aftermath. Dialect coach Jim Ahrens also contributes mightily, making the heavy accents a rich part of the plays texture.

Trainspotting is presented with virtually no set. A lone dilapidated park bench center stage serves as sofa, pub stools, a toilet, and even a coffin. Costumes are merely grunge-caliber working class wear, and there are no props beyond various paraphernalia used to prepare and shoot up drugs. The frequent scenes of drug use, mostly injected into the arm, are simulated with realism enough to tempt me to avert my eyes, though I never did. Indeed, I was drawn to watch every move and gesture, and listen to every word, the latter requiring keen attention to work through the thick Edinburgh-Scot accent with the added challenge of speech addled by drugs.

Trainspotting is by no means an easy play to sit through. Some may not tolerate the many scenes of drug use, others may not have patience for the thick accents, and others may be offended by random bits of misogyny, racism, and brutal violence. Yet, Welsh's original text, on which the play is based, is replete with beautifully written language. This beauty falls on our ears in stark contrast to the pain and ugliness taking place on stage. It is a dramatic picture of the tragedy of drug use, akin to Picasso's painting Guernica, depicting the horrors of war. Both these works are difficult to look at, but that doesn't mean their substance can be ignored, nor does it diminish the beauty imbedded in their creation.

Shadow Horse Theatre's Trainspotting plays through February 13, 2016, at Phoenix Theater, 2605 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $20.00, February 8 performances is Pay What You Can. For information and tickets visit

Writer: Harry Gibson, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh; Director and Fight Choreographer: Peter Beard; Sound Design: Paul von Stoetzel and Peter Beard; Lighting Design: Shannon Elliott; Dialect Coach: Jim Ahrens; Special Props: Ansley Grams; Executive Producer: Angela Walberg.

Cast: Josef Buchel (Tommy), Craig Hostetler (Mark), Matthew Kelly (Franco), Tyler Stamm (Simon, ensemble), Christine Walth (June, ensemble), Kate Zehr (Alison).

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