by Peter Shaffer
Produced by the Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Consider the horse. I am looking at one right now in my neighbor’s yard. He is an enormous gelding, six and a quarter feet high at the withers and weighing well over a thousand pounds. Retired from an indifferent career in the racing profession, he takes his ease, naked except for his shoes. Approach him unawares, though, and he flinches, as though anticipating the bit, the bridle and the saddle.
Or: consider God, in the Christian iteration. We encounter Him most frequently on the cross, where His bit and bridle are a crown of thorns and the spikes driven through His wrists. We saddle Him up for our own crusades, whether to drive Moslems out of their homes in the holy land, or castigate men having sex with each other, or for a minimum wage increase, against SUVs – whatever.
Or – and this is most difficult of all – consider Alan Stang (Jay Hardee), a teenager so full of rage, regret, and a dozen other twisted emotions that all he can do is sing commercial lyrics (Double your pleasure, double your fun) in his grating, off-key voice. Alan, a stableboy who seemed to love his charges, has just blinded six horses with an instrument designed to clean their hooves – a crime so astonishingly violent that the Magistrate (Adrienne Nelson) begs the area’s top child psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Christopher Henley), to take Alan on before a lynch-mob mentality takes hold and sends him to prison for life.
What crucifix did Alan climb off of? What crucifix is Martin on, even as we see him? In director Lee Mikeska Gardner’s searingly intense version of Shaffer’s groundbreaking play, Dysart comes to see Alan’s passion, as crippling as it is, as a form of art, and envies it even as he sets about to cure it.
The act which impelled Alan’s assault on the horses was a horrifying secret when the play first opened in 1973; today it is neither horrifying nor secret, but the subject of hundreds of TV commercials. It does not matter. The true horror in this play is the relentless force of socialization which separates us from our passions, makes us love only that which is prescribed for us, and requires us to embrace the conventional thinking in the conventional way. Martin recognizes and denounces that force, even as he is its servant.
Alan is the son of two exceptionally rigid parents – Dora (Cam Magee), a fiercely religious schoolteacher who encouraged Alan’s early fascination with Christianity, and Frank (Bruce Alan Rauscher), a stubborn atheist committed to a relentless regimen of self-improvement, for himself and others. Eventually, Alan came to substitute a love of horses for his earlier love of the crucified Christ; and came to love those horses with the same power which a flagellant loves his God.
This is very heady stuff, and Gardner does not lose an opportunity to make the force of Alan’s passion as overwhelming to us as it is to him. We sit in a square around the stage, like viewers at a horse show. An oleaginous fog rises. Metal horse’s heads hang suspended over the stage. Occasionally one – the head of the great Nugget, a/k/a Equus will lower onto the head of actor (Joe Tippett), and Alan will talk to it, as man talks to God whenever He comes to earth. When the horses talk to Alan – and it is his fantasy that they do, all the time – it is in deep whispering voices, which come from everywhere on the stage at once. (David Crandall’s sound design was superb). Whether we are in Dysart’s hospital, Alan’s home, the stable or the moviehouse where a cheery young woman who has taken an interest in Alan (elisha efua bartels) has taken him, it always seems to be night. Everyone is in pain. Indeed, the first act ended in such an explosion of rage, grief, and misery that the audience sat stunned as the actors filed out in darkness.
Gardner is helped in her singleminded task by a cast of strong actors who bought into her concept one hundred percent. I was particularly impressed with Magee and Rauscher, who could easily have played Alan’s parents as intolerable twits but who instead gave nuanced interpretations which helped us to see them as victims, rather than villains. Christopher Henley acquitted himself well in the enormous role of Dysart, who he imbues with a wise man’s hesitations. Aware of everything, Henley’s Dysart is capable of nothing, as I believe Shaffer intended. Henley, who appeared to be battling a bad head cold, managed to incorporate his snuffling and coughing into Dysart’s persona, somehow making him even more British than the normal Hopkins/Burton treatment. (Dialect Coach Christine Hirrel did good work on this play, judging from the results). Hardee’s fury seemed a little over the top in the first moments but then he settled in nicely; the last moments, when he re-enacted the blindings, were profoundly and genuinely moving. Over-the-top anger may have been Gardner’s objective; I thought the stablemaster (Kim Curtis) came into his scene far too angry to be able to handle the emotional changes which Shaffer puts his character through. Curtis also helped out with the choreography, which was excellent.
Although most of Gardner’s choices were spot-on, I think it was a mistake to have Dysart and the Magistrate be lovers. Since most of Dysart’s confessions of alienation, lovelessness and meaninglessness in his own life are made to the Magistrate, he ends up appearing to be oblivious and she ends up looking like a fool.
Look, let me say this straight out. This ain’t a musical comedy. This is in-your-teeth drama, where difficult and unpleasant truths are revealed in ways that are not subtle or gentle. If this is your cup of tea – and it is mine, and how! – this is a show for you to see.
Equus is in the Clarke Street Playhouse Thursdays through Saturdays until November 26. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8; Saturdays and Sundays at 2. No performance on Thanksgiving. Extra 8 p.m. performance on Sunday, November 26. Thursday shows are $25; Friday and Sunday shows are $30, except that the price for the 8 p.m. show on November 26 is not posted. Saturday matinees are pay-what-you-can and evening shows are $35. You may purchase tickets at 1.800.494.8497 or online at www.washingtonshakespeare.org.