note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Alexander Wright
A Review by Alexander Wright
Twenty-five years ago British playwright Peter Shaffer's crown jewel Equus premiered on Broadway. Today, the emotional impact of the play remains intact. It continues to intrigue and mystify its audience as powerfully as it did in the mid-seventies. The Footlight Club of Jamaica Plain should be thoroughly commended for producing this gem of a psychological dama. Their production is fairly solid and at times beautifully and hauntingly conveys the central message of Shaffer's most acclaimed work--passion for one's worship, in whatever form that worship manifests itself. There are, however, a few flaws in this diamond which prevent it from reaching the upper echelon of community theatre.
The play's central characters are Alan Strang (Mr. Berry) and Martin Dysart (Mr. Robbins). Alan has been sent to a psychiatric hospital by Hester Salomon (Ms. Schweppe) after blinding six horses with a metal spike. Hester convinces Dr. Dysart to take Alan as a patient ad "cure" him so that he may return to society as a well-adjusted and "normal" individual.
Eventually we begin to understand and sympathize with Alan as we are made aware of some of the familial influences during his early years. We learn of Alan's fascination with horses as a child. A traumatic event for young Alan occurs when his father Frank (Mr. Ansart), upset with his wife's (Ms. Brown) fanaticism for religion, replaces a picture of Christ on horseback with a picture from a horse calendar at the foot of Alan's bed. The boy assimilates and absorbs these images and influences, creating deeply intense rituals and worship ceremonies celebrating horses.
As a teenager, he is brought into direct contact with his "god" through Jill (Ms. Elliot), a young lass who works at a nearby horse stable. At the climax of the play, Alan, embarrassed and frustrated by a failed attempt to make love to Jill, strikes out and blinds his beloved horse Nugget (Mr. Cafazzo) and five other horses at the stable. When he touches and kisses Jill, he only desires to taste the sweat of his favorite horse's brow and longs for the smell of Nugget's hide.
As Dr. Dysart discovers the forces driving Alan's extreme behavior, we are made aware of a growing jealously he harbors for Alan. Dysart feels that his life has become utterly worshipless and admits to Hester that he is envious of the vigor and passion Alan has demonstrated and described. As equally compelling as Alan's equine obsession is Dysart's struggle to "cure" Alan. This is resonated in Dysart's admittance that passion can be destroyed by a psychiatrist, but it can not be created.
Mr. Robbins, as Dr. Dysart, wonderfully portrays the character's inner conflict. He specifically conveys Dysart's growing discontent with particular elements of his life (e.g. his work and marriage) so that we clearly understand the origin of the psychiatrist's envy. The mistake most actors maKe with this role is to lecture the audience, creating an artificial and distant barrier, like a lawyer delivering opening and closing arguments. While Mr. Robbins sometimes directly addresses the audience, we always feel that we are actively involved in his recollection of Alan's treatment. One distracting element of Mr. Robbins performance is his tendency to chew dialog at the beginning and end of phrases. At times, I had no clue what he was saying. That aside, he gives an incredibly moving and powerful performance.
By far the most well-balanced, fully dimensional, and subtly crafted performance comes from Ms. Brown as Dora, Alan's mother. One of the dramatic highlights of this production comes when she delivers a heart breaking monologue to Dr. Dysart expressing her conviction that the devil came along and tainted her little boy. This is one of the best performances by a supporting actress in community theatre that I have seen in quite a while (please don't forget about her during next year's nominations for IRNE!). In addition, she also has the most natural English accent of the cast.
Both Mr. Ansart and Mr. Cares are full-bodied and satisfying as Alan's overbearing, uptight father, Frank, and rustic Mr. Dalton, the stable owner, respectively. The dialects each employ add an extra touch that distinguishes their characters.
The others in the cast do not fare quite as well. Mr. Berry, as Alan, is way too old to convincingly play seventeen. While a magnificently capable and technically precise actor, he does his best and can definitely rise to the emotional challenge of the role. However, he does not successfully portray an underlying innocence, which is also a part of Alan. This may be a result of the direction or of his distinct physical maturity or, most likely, a combination of both. His Alan is always cold and calculated, very rarely caught off-guard during Dr. Dysart's probing and questioning. Mr. Berry rarely allows spontaneity and immaturity to seep through teenage Alan's skin. Thus it is nearly impossible for us to believe that this is an adolescent somehow gone astray. The performance is lopsidedly psychotic rather than humanistically balanced. While consistent, it is one-dimensional as he usually selects the obvious dramatic choice, squeezing the maximum out of it. This is most evident in the moments directly following the reenactment of the blinding of the horses, where we see an actor out of control versus a character out of control.
I read in a press release that Mr. Berry has won best actor awards at both the ACT local and regional amateur competitions. In the same posting I saw that director Ms. Curran Willis has also participated in several of these competitions. Since this is the Footlight Club's entry to the 1999 competition, I can only surmise this is the reason Mr. Berry was cast in the role. It's a shame, since this production would have been better served by an actor closer to the appropriate age.
Ms. Schweppe is somewhat miscast as Hester Salomon, the magistrate. Ms. Schweppe is more suited as a modern day social worker rather than an experienced authoritative magistrate. Professionally, her character appears subordinate to Mr. Robbins in their several scenes, rather than an equal peer. What works best for her is her beautiful chant of "equus" which underscores several of the choral sound effects during the opening of the show and any time Alan is in the presence of the horses.
Perhaps the most inexperienced of the cast is Ms. Elliot, portraying Jill She has several things working against her. First, like Mr. Berry, she looks too old for her role; second, her flirtations are too far and few to believably seduce Alan; third, she has a very uneven accent. Ms. Elliot has a tendency to ignore transitions and because of this her intentions appear rushed, unfocused and unclear.
For the most part, the combined efforts of director Ms. Curran Willis and the technical staff enhance the primary themes of the play. Unfortunately, this production is not without some obvious technical glitches. While the special effects lighting design by Mr., consisting of cool blues to establish night and harsh reds to intensify Alan's rage is particularly noteworthy, the general lighting needs to be cleaned up. Several times the actors move through alternate patches of light and dark within the same playing space.
Mr. Lynch does a fine job with the set design, suggesting the simplicity of the whitewashed landscape of Greece, a favorite mecca for Dr. Dysart. The hauntingly striking centerpiece is a large horse head which stoically gazes over the playing space. The only problem is that the rotating central platform is too small to be 100% efficient (it also squeaks rather loudly at times). As a result, some of the actor's movement inside the platform is awkward and inhibited. On the other hand, Ms. Curran Willis should be complimented for nicely staging six actors playing horses (wearing wooden hooves and stylized horse head masks) and Alan inside the square during the climatic scene.
Ms. Curran Willis also does an excellent job with the final segment of the first act. It is quite vivid and excitingly tense. She effectively uses the complete cast (which remain onstage for the entire production), producing a choral chant at key dramatic moments. With a less experienced hand such efforts would not be nearly as successful.
Equus is an emotionally taxing and fascinating play. You leave the theater questioning the existence of passion and exuberance in your own life. The Footlight Club has given this dramatic event a respectable and solid showing. The technical presentation is frequently admirable. You will leave the theatre with Equus on your mind, but due to some noticeable flaws, he will gallop out of your memory sooner than you would like him to.