(Reviewed by Cory Vaughn)
Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Cory Vaughn. All rights reserved.
“To have your own life, you must first have your own pain, pain unique to you,” says Martin Dysart, a British child psychiatrist having insurmountable doubts about his chosen profession. Sure, he takes away the pain of troubled youths, but he worries that he may be taking away much more of their existence along with it. Peter Shaffer’s Equus is filled with philosophical musings like that, and phrases them in that concise way that the best writers do, like Pablo Neruda and John Irving, so that the reader (or listener) feels as though a long-unexpressed thought of their own has finally been put into exactly the perfect words.
During Friday night’s performance of Indiana University Southeast’s production of Equus, the rain battering against the Ogle Center was so fierce that we could hear it inside the Robinson Theatre, but that was nothing compared to the storm onstage and the tempestuous mix of emotions stirred in its captive and at times horrified audience. This is brilliant, frustrating, mystifying theatre, the latest offering of the same Department of Theatre Arts which only a short year ago brought us another thought-provoking drama, The Boys Next Door.
It does exactly what I look for in great theatre; it challenges me without alienating me, it forces and sometimes shocks me out of my comfort zone, it helps to clarify my most abstract thoughts and fears, and occasionally it threatens to haunt my dreams long after the final curtain. Equus is one of the most disturbed and disturbing plays I have ever seen, and is often justifiably ranked as one of the best of the twentieth century. Shaffer got the idea for it after hearing of a bizarre, supposedly true crime, but he did no research, and what ended up onstage is a product of his own vibrant imagination. I doubt very much that the actual story behind the crime, if it actually took place, could ever hope to be as dark and potent as the story being told here.
On its surface, Equus is a sort of detective story set in a British psychiatric hospital, in which Dysart gets more than he bargained for in his latest patient, seventeen-year-old Alan Strang, a very troubled kid who is sent by the local magistrate for evaluation after he blinds six horses with a hoof pick. But that element is only the framework; discovering what drove Alan to such an extreme action provides what playwrights call the “suspense plot”, but it is Dysart’s crisis of purpose and how this latest case affects him that comprise what they call the “emotional plot”. In that regard, describing Equus is made both more and less difficult than it already was, because ultimately Alan’s psychosis is beside the point.
Make no mistake about it, Dysart does not think his patient is “normal,” whatever that means. Alan is basically alone in the world with a prudish, unhappy father and a religious fanatic mother, has a strange obsession with horses, suffers from recurring nightmares, and when we first meet him, he is so traumatized that he responds to questions only by singing television jingles. He is clearly in pain, and Dysart wants to help him, but it isn’t that easy. Dysart has his own nightmare, in which he is forced to slice open children and remove what’s inside them as a bizarre sacrifice to the gods of normalcy, and in the waking hours, he fears that he may be doing exactly that to Alan Strang, whose torture is indelibly connected to the only passion or happiness he will ever know.
To say any more about what goes on either in the suspense plot or in the emotional plot of Equus would be to risk reducing it to a garish collage of psychobabble and religious symbolism, when the experience is so much more than that. The theatre students of IUS are joined this time around by two of the area’s best actors, J.R. Stuart as Dysart and Drew Cash as Alan, both turning in haunted performances as doctor and patient. Cash in particular turns in a dark and revelatory tour-de-force as the troubled teen; I hope Bunbury remembers him when casting their production of Equus next season. This is the kind of performance they give awards for, and I once again implore my fellow critics in both the print and electronic media to get together and make Louisville-area theatrical awards happen.
I hope the student-actors learn a lot by watching their two leading men at work from their perches atop Rebekkah Meixner’s thick wall around Dysart’s office, where the six minor characters return to watch in between their scenes, not so much players in Dysart and Alan’s lives as observers of them (for another interpretation of this extra-theatrical device, I encourage you to read Hesselman’s program notes). All of the supporting players do good work, but I must single out the four young men (Robert Hudgell, Phillip Rivera, Chris Snyder, and Chris Young) who haunt the proceedings at frequent intervals as the four horses of Alan’s own personal apocalypse (they are joined in the climactic scene by Ben Gierhart, who plays Alan’s joyless father, and Will Gantt, who plays the stable owner), with Meixner’s stylized Julie Taymor-esque helmets and hoof-like platform boots ingeniously realizing the theatrical illusion. Kenneth Atkins’ sound design and eerie original music also contribute immeasurably to the surrealistic, nightmarish mood of the piece. I may never look at a horse the same way again, and for a lifelong Kentuckian, that is saying something!
This is not an official review, since the website did not send me, I paid to get in, I saw the show during its closing weekend, and by the time it is posted on the website, you will only have one final chance to see it, during tomorrow’s 2:30pm matinee, but I had to write about it, as best as I could, in the hope that you will flock to the Ogle Center for one of the most unforgettable (and literally indescribable) pieces of theatre you are likely to see for some time. It is a piece that deserves to be seen by more than the handful of people in the auditorium last night. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
As a side note, I should mention that the department was graced at the performance I attended by a very special guest, the acclaimed actress and former Miss America Lee Meriwether, who, as my theatre date for the evening informed me, has worked with director Hesselman in the past and performed at IUS last year with some of these same students. By all accounts, Ms. Meriwether was quite impressed with the production. What is my point in telling you this? If a big star like Lee Meriwether can come all the way from Hollywood to New Albany to see it, you have no excuse not to.
By PETER SHAFFER
Directed by JIM HESSELMAN
Indiana University Southeast Theatre Department
4201 Grant Line Road
New Albany, IN 47150
Playing in the Robinson Theatre,
Paul W. Ogle Cultural and Community Center
Remaining Performances: March 5 at 8pm, March 6 at 2:30pm
Senior Citizens, Students, IUS Faculty and Staff: $6
Drew Cash (Alan Strang), J.R. Stuart (Martin Dysart), Jennifer Thompson (Jill Mason), Vanessa Ferguson (Hester Salomon), Ben Gierhart (Frank Strang), Beth Hammond (Dora Strang), Alexandria Sweatt (Nurse), Will Gantt (Harry Dalton), with Robert Hudgell, Phillip Rivera, Chris Snyder, and Chris Young