at heart of 'Equus'
October 13, 2004
By Jim Carnes
Bee Staff Writer
--The theater was too hot and the
cigarette smoking and fog effects on stage were irritating, but the City Theatre production of Peter Shaffer's "Equus" was
riveting. The audience of three dozen or so last weekend sat spellbound as the psychological thriller swirled like a tornado,
its winds physically pushing the body down and back while the drama at its central core held the viewer firmly in its grasp.
Shaffer, who went on to write the very different play "Amadeus," based "Equus" on a real crime, one in which an
English teenager blinded six horses.
In the play, the boy is sent to a psychiatric hospital where a pediatric psychologist, Dr. Martin Dysart, is asked
to probe the youth's mind, to find out what makes him tick and to "fix" it. But Dysart, eminent doctor that he is, has lately
been afflicted with self-doubt - and dreams in which he is an ancient god sacrificing young children by slicing them open
and pulling out their insides. As he delves more deeply into the troubled boy's mind - where god and horses, the cross and
the riding crop, sex, religion and devotion intermingle - Dysart begins to envy the passion that fuels the boy's confusion.
The doctor finally comes to realize that he might be able to "cure" the kid, but at what price?
Alan Strang is the strange young man at the center of the drama. He is portrayed by Evan Johnson in a brilliantly,
barely controlled emotionally (and sometimes physically) naked performance. Strang's torture is so great it plays across the
actor's face and tenses his limbs as he first fights to hide and later struggles to reveal it.
The playwright sets specific instructions for staging the play, including requiring that mime and masks be employed
in representing the horses (Kevin Poole is especially good as the regal Nugget, who embodies Equus, Alan's god in horse form)
and that ritual and sound be used to create the imagined world in which the teenager lives.
Director Kim McCann hews the line, making these rather stylized conventions seem natural. But she goes Shaffer
one better, by double-casting the role of the psychiatrist, who serves as both narrator and participant. Crom Saunders, slim
and silent, elegantly performs the role in American Sign Language simul-taneously to Rodrigo H. Breton's hefty and vigorous
spoken delivery. (Jes Gonzales plays this role at matinees.) It makes those scenes in which Dysart questions himself palpably
real. Both men are excellent.
Sarah Rowland is open and innocent as Jill Mason, the teenage girl whose attempted act of intimacy with Strang
results in the incomprehensible violence, and Lauren Thomas and Ted Ridgway are well-cast as Dora and Frank Strang, Alan's
Christ-centric mother and socialist-atheist father, respectively. Smaller roles are not so fully developed or well executed.
But everything pales in comparison to Saunders/Breton as Dysart and Johnson as Strang. These are performances to be relished
- and a production not to be missed.