"IF EQUUS leaves, it will be with your intestines. And I don't stock replacements."
The words are spoken by Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist in a rural English hospital, and they are directed to Alan Strang, his 17-year-old patient who, at the moment, is under hypnosis. Alan has been institutionalized after blinding six horses one night in the stable where he works on weekends. Equus is the imaginary horse god, the product of Alan's tangled mind and troubled childhood and it is Dysart's task to exorcise it from him. The question on which Peter Shaffer's play turns is, simply, does Dysart want to?
Not an ounce of the original Broadway play's intensity is lost in the Leverett House Art Society's excellent production of Equus. Presented as theater in the round, this production wastes no time in drawing the audience into the action and the play releases its grip only after two--and-a-half hours of troubling and, ultimately, cathartic drama. Under Brad Dalton's able direction, the cast, comprised almost entirely of newcomers to the Harvard stage, skillfully sustains an intense atmosphere of tension and provides a few examples of superb acting.
When the local authorities hand Alan (played by Andrew Sullivan) over to Dysart (Chad Raphael) the doctor expects only the "usual unusual". And indeed, at first glance, the facts of the boy's life appear mundane. Sifting through his personal history, Dysart learns that Alan's mother, a religous woman, used to read the Bible to him before he went to bed. The fixation with horses ostensibly stems from an incident on the beach when Alan was six years old: a man on a horse let him ride the animal for a while, an experience he later describes to Dysart as "sexy". At home, over his bed, where there used to be a poster of Jesus carrying the cross there now hangs one of a horse. On paper, then, there is nothing remarkable.
But, like some puzzling psychological axiom, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and Dysart cannot account for the difference. It can only be testimony to the dark powers of the mind that, somehow, through the mixing of these impressions and influences there arises the imaginary Equus, part god, part object of desire.
And like all gods. Equus is a jealous god. After a girl who works with Alan at the stables tries to seduce him one night he is over whelmed with feelings of guilt for his spiritual and physical infidelity. The inner torment drives him into the blinding rage that ultimately lands him in Dysart's office.
As the treatment progresses, Dysart's misgivings about his mission increase. He does not relish the task of retrieving Alan from the fictitious temple of Equus and restoring him to the antiseptic world of normalcy. And it is more than just "professional menopause" from which Dysart suffers. Behind Alan's pain he sees a passion that is absent from his own life. The choice facing Dysart is whether to leave Alan in his own vivid albeit torturing world, or to send him on his way into a society bleached of real emotions.
IT IS ONLY here, on the role of Martin Dysart, that the Leverett House production stumbles. Chad Raphael's performance begins at a high pitch, revealing Dysart's inner conflict early and thus leaving little room for its development. But this approach eliminates the dramatic tension inherent in the script. Ideally, what should appear at first as Dysart's doubts about the usefulness of psychiatry should only later evolve into a professional and personal crisis.
The overall performance, however, remains very strong. Andrew Sullivan stands out in the role of Alan Strong as he successfully captures the character's volatile yet vulnerable nature. Throughout the play he shifts between the boy's external awkwardness and internal anguish with remarkable case. Though some of the English accents occasionally slip, the play always carries an air on believability, right down to the six actors imitating horses.
Equally impressive are the play's technical features. The cast works well with the unconventional staging and the audience enjoys ringside seats for all the action. In addition, a creative use of light and sound round out James Youakim's fine production efforts.
Both for the performances and the play itself, then, Equus should not be missed.
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