November 9, 2004

Themes of sex, worship still potent in Equus revoval

Upon its 1974 Broadway premiere, Peter Shaffer's Equus shocked and amazed thousands of theatergoers. With its nudity, provocative content, and portrayal of deeply disturbed individuals, it became one of the most controversial, as well as one of the greatest, plays in the English language of the past fifty years. The play's main criticism is that in a mechanical and bitterly scientific age, a man becomes vulnerable to losing his sense of worship, and therefore losing a part of his individuality. Even so, when one reads the play, one is taken aback by the form that message takes. No reading can do Equus justice. However, the play's mystical staging, unchanged by the Hypocrites Theater Company, drills the message into the mind of the audience and does not leave them until long after the curtain call.

Equus's hero is profoundly disturbed, and only after sufficient self-doubting by other characters can we discover our sympathies for him. Alan Strang, an institutionalized seventeen-year-old, is first introduced as a boy who spiked the eyes out of six horses with a spur, and who mutters nothing but television ad slogans. Through the investigations of Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist treating Alan, we begin to learn of possible causes for this incident: an aborted first horseback ride, his mother's religiosity, his father's ban on television. The only real clue we get from Alan himself, however, is his muttering of "Eck, EckĀ…" repeatedly in his sleep.

Alan is loud and resistant, and breaks through Martin's detached exterior by grilling him on his troubled marriage. Geoff Button excels as Alan, giving him depth as a man who is ostentatiously angry and violent on the surface, but is in reality feeble and shattered. Kurt Ehrmann consistently maintains a forlorn, eternally conflicted Martin, yet he can switch from confusion to rage to fascination in the blink of an eye.

The first act ends with the realization of Alan's spiritual connection to horses, a motif that is developed in the second act, in which we learn more details about the practices of Alan's worship, as well as the circumstances that led to his violent act. It is ironic to note that his violence was in step with his coming of age, a product of his profound sense of worship clashing with the adult life expected of him. This point is further emphasized by Martin's increasing fascination with Alan's worship, which Martin himself has been striving for all his life.

Martin's lifeless marriage and halfhearted interest in ancient Greece are no matches for Alan's immersion in his ritualistic practices. Martin's fascination conflicts with his duties as a psychiatrist, as he begins to doubt his goal of returning Alan to a "normal" life. In doing so, he would cause Alan to lose his identity. Ultimately, we learn that the two lifestyles are irreconcilable, a realization that had caused Alan to resort to violence against his god.

While the content of the play is stunning enough, we must not forget director Sean Graney's brilliant staging, a whole other invaluable dimension of the production. Largely taken from the original production (indeed, there is no need to change that staging as of yet), the set is designed like a barn, with actors dressed as horses forming a sort of Greek chorus, chanting and humming at critical moments. Watching Alan interact with these horses while on stage brings to life what would otherwise just be discussed, as we see, at least to some extent, Shaffer's goal for humanity. Alan's nudity in front of the horses is intensely emotional and personal, contrasted by shallower nudity of his coworker Jill, portrayed brilliantly by Halena Kays. The horses' reactions are what drive Alan to aggression, and the stage rotates to further emphasize the point, albeit in a rather gimmicky manner.

In the performance I saw, there were very few flaws of which to speak. Among those few, most notable was Martin's vocalized idealization of Alan to his coworker, which was constantly screamed by Ehrmann, screamed so much that the meaning, and indeed, audibility of his words were often lost in the process. It was an easy trap into which Graney could fall; Martin's reaction to Alan is life-changing, and Ehrmann can display fury so skillfully that he relied on screaming too much. While this overindulgence was a tad distracting, it by no means ruined a spectacular production of an intensely moving play.