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Blinding the All-Seeing Gods

Equus at the Wilbur Theater through Dec.27, 8 p.m.

By Gregory F. Lawless

THERE'S NOTHING much new about Peter Shaffer's Equus than hasn't already been said long ago when it was first produced by the National Theater in London or when it came to Broadway over a year ago. There's nothing new to say except that the play is finally in Boston and that it's just as good, and that if you haven't see it yet you should.

But even if you have already seen Equus you should see it again for two reasons. The play has changed in small degrees, enough to say that it will be around for a long time and will be subject to radically different interpretations. The degree to which it hasn't changed is a measure of John Dexter's excellent direction.

Equus takes place in the present in Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital in Southern Egland. The child psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Brian Bedford) is asked by the local magistrate, Heather Salomon (Sheila Smith) to take on an unusual case: a disturbed young man who was brought to her court for commiting a crime less horrible in its consequences than in its explanation, a crime that is in one sense an unspeakable mystery. Alan Strang (Dai Bradley), the boy, arrives at the hospital in a state of extreme catatonia, singing advertising jingles or watching television during the day and living in a world of nightmares at night. And it is this world that Dysart tries to break into, albeit through a variety of psychiatric techniques that aren't valid according to real pasychiatrists.

The play in this sense is not so much psychological drama--an explanation of personality or behavior--as a kind of psycho-suspense thriller with one important question: Can Dysart trace the trail of clues that lead to explaining why the boy did what he did? There's also the question of whether he will be able to cure him, and, almost a corollary to this second mystery: Does Dysart want to cure the boy?

All of the fun here is in how Shaffer has constructed this sometimes--too-slick play to heighten suspense and to raise some interesting questions on the side. Equus brings to life a mythical resonance and intellectual concerns that aren't too prevalent in contemporary drama--and this, I think is why it has been acclaimed "brilliant" time and again by critics--but these concerns are cheapened in the end.

DYSART MOVES about the stage as if he himself were in analysis, presenting the most disturbing case he's ever come across in his career. He's a loquacious narrator, and genuinely interested in his subject in the same way as say, the narrator in Lord Jim. The difference being that Dysart acts out his narrative--just as he has Alan Strang act out his psychosis through a form of psychodrama. And, instead of repeatedly saying "he's one of us" as the narrator says of the rejected Lord Jim, Dysart keeps asking himself, "why should I make this boy one of us, why not leave him in his own world?" For Dysart is the victim of a low sperm count, a Laodicean marriage, and "professional menopause" and he almost wants to preserve Strang's passion in a world he sees as otherwise dull and godless.

Strang's crime has to do with horses--he blinds six of them for no immediately apparent reason, passion is a misplaced religious feeling for horses as all-seeing gods that developed out of his father's refusal to let him ride a horse when a child and his mother's proselityzing fervor (or so the play simplistically postulates). And the ritual that surrounds this passion plumbs to the depths of the unconscious mind: of sexuality, aggressiveness, bestiality, and the need to explain this world through some from of myth.

THE ACTING in this show is superb throughout, from Brian Bedford's cold portrayal of the cynical Dysart to Humbert Allen Astredo's rendering of the nervous father, shuffling about, pulling his hat round in circles between his thumb and forefinger. Bedford's performance is best, although it was marred last Friday night by a great deal of spluttering and spittle in enunciation. As narrator, Dysart controls most of the ironic pitch and timbre of Equus, and Bedford brings to the role the kind of laconic understatement that's necessary for it to succeed. In the Broadway production I saw last year, Anthony Hopkins, the original National Theater actor, seemed more effusive and self-confident. The irony was almost understated. But here, Bedford isn't as liberal with his movements, he pauses more between lines, he seems always ill at ease as if the questions Alan's psychosis present are more immediate and perplexing. And although I still believe that Shaffer didn't give these questions about the need for some form of sustained myth in this world and the psychiatrist's role as quelcher of individuality enough development--subsumed by the immediate action--Bedford succeeds as much as possible in raising them up above the action.

Dai Bradley as Alan has the most difficult role to play in Equus and he is outstanding. He must rely more on movement and facial expressions while being the center of attention for both the audience and the play's other characters. When he first appears on the stage he stares at Dysart, confused and questioning. And he doesn't quite seem to get this accusing look that Dysart later claims he puts on to say, "I have my passion... What's yours?" Not that this is inconsistent with Alan Strang's character. It seems more appropriate that he always be questioning and that this "accusing glare" Dysart reads into his eyes be more a reflection of Dysart's own inadequacies.

Dysart mostly reveals his problems of a passionless life to the magistrate, and Sheila Smith's acting--also more muted and restrained than in the Broadway production--helps throw his expression of the need for individual passions into greater relief. She scolds him sharply for even thinking of not curing Alan, saying "I'll take your skills over his passions any time." By being less sympathetic--making the rapport between she and Dysart less open--Shaffer's play gains more substance.

And the more substance the better. Because Shaffer has Dysart overstate his case in places about the dullness of modern society. Dysart says that by getting rid of this obsessive passion in Alan, he will make the boy's life boring, as if his life could never be full of new passions (some perhaps just as psychotic). Shaffer also seems to make this assumption that when Dysart finally finds out what caused Alan's problems (as simple as these causes are), he will be cured, when that seems only to be the beginning. This explains Shaffer's retraction in the program: that he wanted to interpret the events of the boy's crime "in some entirely personal way," and that "psychiatrists are an immensely varied breed, professing immensely varied methods and techniques" and that Martin Dysart is just one doctor in one hospital.

WHAT IS FINALLY the most mysterious of all things in Equus--Alan need not be as opaque as he is at the end, but that serves the action and suspense--is what people want for Alan Strang. His mother wants him to be happy and religious, his father wants him to improve his character, his girlfriend just wants him to be able to toss in the hay with her, the magistrate wants him to be without pain, and Dysart wants him to retain his passion--or at least toys with the idea. And it is in Dysart that this desire to see the boy different than what he can become--not just dull--that the dangers arise of wanting any child to be something. Dysart plays God as the others wanted to play God, offering Alan a bag of gimmicks that will guarantee he'll be rid of his nightmares and maybe even rid of his horrible memory.

Lurking beneath this tugging and pulling a child to become something, is the most deadly of all passions in Equus, more deadly than the dull, passionless society Dysart depicts. Alan Strang probably wouldn't have been in the world he was if he hasn't been thrust there by a society that pushes people into a frame of being without helping them understand the dimensions of their own roles in that society or of all the emotions they will experience: pain and pleasure, virtue and vice, boredom and passion. Equus helps a little in that direction, and while it could've done much more, it certainly rises above much recent theater.

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