Backstage Review: ‘Equus’ at Good Luck Macbeth

The world around Alan Strang is confusing, his passion and desires are befuddled by religion and his adolescent confusion. “Equus” is quite the ride into insanity and leaves the audience moved deeply by the stellar performances and seamless production.

“Equus” is indeed a very challenging play to present, the intense emotion portrayed by the cast, the complexity of the set that includes a stable with horses, and a seduction scene with nudity. All of this brings a vulnerability to the actors that can hamper the performances. I have to say that the cast is stunning in every respect and the set is simple and elegant with some surprises. I also have to mention that the Costume and Mask design is outstanding thanks to Lyndsey Langsdale. Lyndsey brings a balanced 1970’s feel to the costuming that brought a big smile to my face.

Here are a few words of caution before you see “Equus” at GLM. The subject matter may disturb some with the no holds barred portrayal of mental illness and violence as well as a seduction scene that includes nudity. That being said, all of this is presented in a way that is not for shock value but blends with the story perfectly with the talent of the performers.

Check out what Norm Robins has to say.

Good Luck Macbeth Does ‘Equus’

By Norm Robins

Photos provided by Good Luck Macbeth

To like Peter Shaffer’s work—and a lot of people do—you have to like psychology and you need to understand ancient Greek theater.  He is a master of both.

“Equus” portrays interaction between two men.  Alan Strang is an intensely complex teenager.  He has committed a crime by blinding 6 horses in his employer’s stable.  Instead of jailing him Judge Salomon turns him over to Dr. Dysert, a psychiatrist at a nearby psychiatric hospital, saying there is something special about the boy only Dr. Dysert can cure.

Shaffer has cast this play to an extent in the mold of classic Greek drama.  To understand that, it helps to know some of Aristotle’s Poetics, a handbook for Greek drama.

Aristotle said the poet, as dramatists were called at the time, should introduce fear and loathing into the audience.  For example, Sophocles’ Oedipus in Oedipus Rex was doomed by his fate to kill his father and sleep with his mother.  That evokes fear and loathing.  He is appalled by what he has done.  When he discovers his mother Jocasta has hanged herself he clings to her body in grief.  He takes gold pins from her dress and blinds himself with them.  He can no longer bear to look at the world he has created.  Alan blinds six horses not with gold pins but with a hoof pick (like an ice pick but used to break up clods of earth in the horse’s hooves) in the stable where he works for reasons that unfold in the play.  That too elicits fear and loathing.

Aristotle breaks down drama into its component parts.  The most important is the plot.  He calls this the soul of drama.  The second most important is characterization.  A play can be long on plot and short on characterization or vice-versa, but it should not be too long on either of these components.  If so, the dramatist will overload and thus confuse the audience.  Which to think about, plot or characterization?  Equus conforms to this rule.  It is very long on characterization and short on plot.  At first sight, the characterization seems to be about Alan.  It is not.  It is about Dr. Dysert.

Classic Greek drama uses a Greek chorus, a homogeneous group of actors who explain, describe concepts, or other tasks for the audience.  In the first act, Shaffer has the actors form into such a chorus when they are not saying their lines.  They sit on benches around the central stage and silently watch. 

The play is set in a psychiatric hospital in the south of England mostly in the office of Dr. Martin Dysert.  17-year-old Alan Strang has blinded six horses in his employer’s stable. 

Alan’s father is a very strict disciplinarian and an atheist.  His mother is religious.  She told Alan Bible stories when he was younger.  Dysert learns from the parents Alan has obsessed over images of Christ’s torture.  He also loves horses but claims he has never ridden one.  Alan’s boss, the stable owner, says he thinks Alan surreptitiously has been taking horses out at night for rides.  Alan has conjured up and believes in the god Equus that lives in the body of horses.  Equus has many of the attributes of a suffering Christ.

Alan has indeed been taking horses out for rides at night.  He has been riding naked on a naked horse thus being at one with the horse.  He rides around shouting in praise of Equus until he reaches an exhausting sexual and a spiritual climax.

Jill Mason is a young girl who also works in the stable.  She seduces Alan, first by taking him to see an X-rated movie and then taking him back to the stable.  Alan is so obsessed with Equus he can’t perform.  He can have orgasms only when riding Equus late at night and naked.  He is so embarrassed by his failure he chases Jill out of the stable and blinds the horses that have witnessed this to keep the god Equus from mocking him.

After admitting this to Dysert, Alan falls asleep.  At this point, Dysert starts to doubt the worth of his own profession.  If he “cures” the boy Dysert will destroy the boy’s uniqueness.  He will simply return Alan to the bland, homogenized boredom of normalcy.  Is that the purpose of psychology, to serve that societal function?  At this point, Dysert empathizes with Alan’s horse.  He says he has a chain in his mouth.  He cannot break out from his prosaic work, his prosaic paradigms, and his prosaic vocabulary.  Yes, he will cure Alan and damn him to a boring life.  That, after all is said and done, is his calling and his damnation.

It is fitting that Shaffer brought so much of ancient Greece into the structure and text of this play.  In ancient Greece, many gods were worshiped.  Oedipus after blinding himself wanders into a place just outside of Athens.  He asks what god presides over the place.  He is told it is Eumenides, the goddess of fate.  At that time, people were free to choose their own god, worship in their own way, and follow their own god’s demands.  Not so now.  Now we are double drop-forged into conformity, into normalcy, into monotheism, and someone else tells us what God wants from us.  No one is allowed to be his own person, to discover his own inner godliness.  And Dysert is an instrument of that boring homogeneity.  He is the sine qua non of that conformity.

The play is ably and convincingly directed by Bill Ware.  Alan is played by Mason Vokes and Dysert by Dave Anderson, both flawlessly.  Their performances are compelling.  They force you to sit in your seat and watch and listen.  Alan’s mother and father are played by Jamie Woodham and Dave Richards, both delivering strong performances.  It is interesting that a decade or so ago Jamie played Mozart’s wife Costanze in Peter Shaffer’s other famous play Amadeus at the Brüka Theater.  She has clearly mastered Shaffer’s work.  The whole cast performed well without a misstep.  They made this a must-see performance.

But “Equus” is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.  The seduction scene is performed in the nude.  Alan rides Equus in the nude where he has his religious orgasm.  Both nude Alan and nude Jill have the beauty of youth going for them, and taken on their own terms both scenes have the beauty of art going for them.  The masters of the Renaissance would be proud.  These scenes are two of the reasons Equus stands tall in the pantheon of the performing arts and very much worth seeing.

Cast:

Alan Strang                           Mason Vokes

Dr. Dysert                              Dave Anderson

Dora Strang                          Jamie Woodham

Frank Strang                         Dave Richards

Hester Salomon                   Molly Ellen Stewart

Jill Mason                              Brittney Graves

Nurse                                     Valerie Huston

Dalton                                     Samuel Cramer

Horse Nugget                       Jasper Unger

Horse Hercules                    Lyndsey Langsdale

Horse Trooper                       Kyle Gibney

Horse Bucephalus              Chelsie Breann

Horse Queenie                     Courtney Ropp

Horse Starr                            Robert Simpson

Currently playing at the Good Luck Macbeth (GLM) Theater, 124 West Taylor St., Reno, NV 89509.  For more information please go to www.goodluckmacbeth.org.

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