Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2005
I have always enjoyed the fact that we use the archaic “wright” when referring to someone one crafts plays. Once you have written a play it is not just something that you wrote, it is something that you wrought. I find five definitions of the word “wrought”: 1. worked into shape by artistry or effort; 2. elaborately embellished; 3. processed for use; 4. beaten into shape with tools; and 5. deeply stirred or excited.
Peter Shaffer’s Equus is overwrought in every sense of the word.
Shaffer was inspired to write Equus after hearing a news story about a British teen who, for no discernable reason, blinded several horses. Shaffer never confirmed the event or discovered more of the details, but the story fascinated him, provoking him “to interpret it in some entirely personal way.” His dramatic goal, he wrote in a note to the play, was “to create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible.”
This goal required a great deal of “wrighting” and the end result is a play that is moving, disturbing, thought provoking, and ultimately completely unsatisfying. In an essay entitled “Anger in Equus“, Barry B. Witham remarked “Equus is neither great theatre nor bad psychology, but it has elements of both.” That about sums it up.
As a playwright Shaffer had to create a mental world in which the seemingly senseless act of blinding of several horses could be made comprehensible to him. That does not necessarily mean that he has succeeded in making the act comprehensible to anyone else. The reality he has invented for his troubled youth Alan Strang is highly unlikely. Aristotle wrote: “With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” Equus falls unfortunately into the latter category.
It was and is a highly sensational play, with its volatile mixture of sex, religion, and psychiatry, which some categorize as a religion of its own. The production at the Ghent Playhouse omits the nudity that made the original West End and Broadway productions so shocking, and the wildly uneven ability levels of the actors that one inevitably finds in community theatre remove some of the play’s power, but ultimately this is a decent production of a difficult play, and certainly a brave undertaking for Ghent.
There are three keys elements to a convincing production of Equus: strong actors in the roles of Alan Strang and psychiatrist Martin Dysart, and plausible stage horses. This production has two out of those three.
Ian Gulliver is not totally believable as Alan Strang, but he gives the role everything he’s got and certainly deserves an “A” for effort. He looked exhausted by the end of the play, and I was not surprised. I am not quite sure where his failing came. Was he a little too old for the part? There is a very small window of time in the human journey when it would be possible for someone to believe so passionately and unquestioningly. Was he not able to enter deeply enough into Strang’s insanity? This unique mental condition is the most improbable possibility in the play. Just how naïve and suggestible does someone, even a child, have to be to automatically swap a horse for Jesus Christ as an object of worship simply because the picture of one is replaced by the other?
Paul Murphy is hopeless as Martin Dysart. From his very first soliloquy he was galloping through his lines, not giving one any more weight than another, and slobbering a dreadful faux-British accent over it all like ketchup on pate de foie gras. Bleah! But dreadful as he was, he didn’t get in the way, which was a very good trick in itself. I cared much more about Gulliver’s Strang than Murphy’s Dysart, so as long as Murphy succeeded in bringing Gulliver along, I was happy enough.
Shaffer is very specific in his stage directions about what Equus should look like and sound like. Detwiler and set designer Robert Bisson have completely rearranged the seating at the Ghent Playhouse to achieve some of Shaffer’s vision, and it works. The show is staged in three-quarters round, with a raised and platform on the floor of the theatre and seating on the western and southern walls and on the stage. You cannot sit more than five rows from the action, and Detwiler has done an excellent job of blocking the show so that all three sections of the audience can see, even if they perceive the story from different angles. The rough wood with which the set was constructed had just the right patina to be convincing as a stable – not too newly hewn and not too polished.
I am not sure that Ian Gulliver’s sound design, executed by Theresa Mayorga and Isaiah Machiz, truly captures what Shaffer describes as the “Equus sound” but it is effective. Abby Lappen is billed as the “Horseographer” and Tony Pallone, who also plays the horse Nugget and a horseman, is the “Prance Captain.” The costumes by Joanne Maurer include handsome silvery horseheads that seem to me about life-sized. I know a thing or two about horses, and I found these theatrical recreations, enacted by Pallone, Lindsey Sikora, Hans Dirzuweit, and Noah Massimo, to be plausible.
So you have a good Alan Strang, a hopeless Martin Dysart, and some believable stage horses – that’s enough key elements done right to make this is a show worth seeing. And there are several other players on the stage. In fact the top performances of the evening are turned in by Joe Kelly and Lael Locke as Alan’s parents Frank and Dora Strang. I was especially moved by Locke’s delivery of her scene on the angst of being the mother of someone who is notoriously mentally ill. How could the child you carried in your body for nine months, nursed and nurtured, scolded and praised, have done this thing? Modern psychiatry is quick to point the finger of blame at the parents, but the Strangs no more taught Alan to blind horses than the Dahmers taught Jeffrey to be a cannibal. The person who commits heinous acts is imprisoned or hospitalized, but the parents are left alone in their grief and the agony of “what ifs…”
Johnna Murray smiles her way bravely through the thankless role of Magistrate Hester Solomon. She is the only actor on the stage capable of sustaining a believable British accent, and she is utterly wasted in the role of the completely passive listener. Dysart reveals some deeply troubling information to Solomon, who, like her Biblical namesake, replies with wise platitudes and assures him that he has done and will do right by his young patients, including Alan.
Carly L’Ecuyer smirks and poses her way through the role of Jill Mason, the young woman who offers Alan a chance to channel his sexual urges towards his own species. When L’Ecuyer was acting she was okay, but when she attempted to act sexy the results were disastrous. And who got her to wear that plug-ugly underwear? Here is an attractive young woman wedged into the most unflattering and uncomfortable looking black camisole and panties imaginable. What’s wrong with white cotton?
Paul Leyden has fun with the minor role of stable owner Harry Dalton. I could have done with a little less good humor and a lot more shock and outrage from him, however. There is nothing fun or funny about mental illness or a stable full of blind horses.
The one thing that I missed deeply was the scent of the horses. The set looked like a stable, the actors passed as horses, the sound effects were evocative if not realistic, but without that warm, earthy smell, it was all antiseptic. As I walked back to my car after the show with a small crowd of other theatre-goers, I noticed one man raise his nostrils to the air and I caught a whiff of manure from a nearby farm. “That’s what’s been missing all evening,” I said, “The smell of horses.” And everyone heartily agreed. Perhaps the folks at the Playhouse just need to open the windows?
Equus runs weekends through June 5, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is definitely adult fare. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005