Is Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychodrama Equus really just one more overblown horse-opera? Contemplate Dallas’ Uptown Players’ visually stunning production of the convoluted, highly symbolic work, and decide for yourself. Running through March 21 and directed by Bruce R. Coleman, the play kicks off the company’s ninth season and inaugurates its use of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater (former full-time home of the Dallas Theater Center). The term horse opera, originally coined by silent film-era Western star William S. Hart, can be used variously to convey either disparagement or affection and refers to a performance piece that can be extremely cliched or formulaic ( in soap opera style). The name also comes in part from the musical sequences frequently featured in performance showing a cowboy singing to his horse. Uptown Players’ production features no singing cowboys, but it does real justice to Shaffer’s controversial play. A genuine horse opera, worthy of both affection and disparagement.
What controversy? On stage nudity, pervasive sensuality, man/beast relationships, and unsavory behaviors including repressive religiosity and extreme animal worship and cruelty. The play offers up a draft horse sized hay-net full of seething controversy-fomenting opportunities for divergent interpretation, outrage and heated post-show discussion. That’s on top of the substantial theatrical challenges it presents for creating believable characters within its symbol-laden, twisted psycho-dramatic script. Classically-structured by Shaffer according to Greek Apollonian v. Dionysian value systems (light versus darkness, or civilization versus primal nature), there’s enough hoof-stomping, nostril-flaring, cinched up metaphor in this play to gallop a mid-1970’s English lit master’s thesis across a Kentucky race course finish line without turning a hair.
The subject matter: Equus concerns a deeply depressed, repressed psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who longs for a life of meaning and passion. He gets talked into taking on as a client a deeply disturbed, even more repressed 17 year old boy, Alan Strang, who has gouged out the eyes of a stable of horses he cares for, in an act of psychotic passion. The play explores the reasons for the boy’s cruel act, his repressive family relationships, sexual longings and ecstatic worship of horses, with Dysart mirroring the boy’s outward anguish with inner turmoil. By the play’s end Dysart realizes he may do more damage in rendering children “normal” than in allowing them to continue their “madness.”
What does this play say about psychiatric cures and the reasons for madness? Here’s where the play shows it’s long in the tooth. “The then voguish theories of R. D. Laing, which championed the creative beauty within madness while fixing blame on the repressiveness of the conventional family” seem to receive full credence here. Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of what he termed “madness”. The philosophy seems to go along with the free love and doin’ your own thing spirit of the 70’s era, “communing with your own inner madman.” Given the number of “outward madmen” today’s assault-weary world must deal with on a daily basis, who fly planes into buildings and the like, it’s hard to empathize with a play that seems to champion such “mad” behavior.
So where’s the affection? The ominous, looming, ethereal set (also by director/ designer Bruce R. Coleman) consisting of Stonehenge-like columns, blocks and benches clustered around the Humphreys’ on stage revolve, morphs effortlessly from psychiatrist office to dream-world sacrificial slab to mental ward to stable-yard. Lights and sound (Jason Foster/ Andi Allen) dramatically reinforce the stark other-worldliness of the play’s reality and enhance the sensuality and the madness overwhelming the boy Alan. The growing sense of desperate alienation the audience feels mirrors Alan’s from “normal” society. All technical elements intensify the alienation effect without overwhelming the text or characterization. The costuming of the horses (Suzi Cranford), played by shapely men in stylized, horse-head masks, half-clothed with muscles rippling (much like actual horses), conveys the wanton sense of a pagan ritual, unleashed to prey on the unstable mind of a vulnerable boy. (Superlative mask design by Jeffrey Schmidt) The horse concept and equine choreography (also by Coleman) are exquisitely executed and alternate between fascination and horror, as the horses occupy in one instant a very real stable scene and in the next moment a Horse-God Hell of the mind. When the final blinding attack arrives, the stylized dance ritual, choral screaming and pulsating red wash of lights transport the audience far enough away from the grotesque cruelty of the perpetrated act to prevent them from fleeing the building. (Note: I have never seen this play before, avoided it; I spent over thirty years passionately involved with horses as an equestrian professional and could not bear the thought of watching the maiming if it was portrayed realistically. It worked well artistically here, and I kept my seat.). Nudity in this play represents the baring of the soul and escape from societal repression. In scenes where actors appear nude, their nakedness reinforces the play’s message and allows them to reveal deeper aspects of character in appropriate, effective ways. The shadowed silhouette lighting effect on nude form enhances the nightmarish quality required by the play to convey the descent into madness. Are the forms real, or are they ghost? Delusion? The script does not call for full nudity in the final scene between Alan and the stable girl Jill (Scene 33), but its presence in this production does not seem gratuitous. Uptown Players’ Equus is haunting and revelatory.
What disparagement? As evocatively detailed as the design and technical elements are, as effectively executed as the ritual depiction of psychological imbalance and symbolic portrayal of the world of the Horse Gods are, much of the acting in the show never rises to the same level. It seems as though director Coleman focused most on spectacle elements. At first, Rick Espaillat as Martin Dysart conveys the professional distance one expects in a psychiatrist, but he never ventures much beyond it convincingly. Clearly repressing his own demons, Dysart needs to reveal his accelerating inner torment as the play unfolds. His relationship to Alan, the disturbed boy, never seems to connect beyond a professional level. Curiously, he seems disconnected from his own nightmare scene, where he enacts child sacrifice. His later emotional outbursts don’t fit with the reserved persona he has created. British accent, or not? Cast members attempt it with limited success. Supporting actors seem to know their lines and blocking but portray relationships and motivation with superficiality. Costuming the contingent of men at the porno film scene all in trench coats seems camp, almost humorous in its incongruity. On the other hand, back in the world of ritual and symbol, Daylon Walton as lead horse Nugget gives a majestic, noble performance; he clearly responds to Alan’s worshipful attentions and shows his adoration as only a horse can. Lee Jamison Wadley as the stable girl Jill embodies an uncomplicated wholesomeness, an unsuspecting, virginal sweetness, in pointed contrast to Alan’s warped, unbalanced, obsessive behavior.
Winner’s Circle: Max Swarner as Alan delivers the strongest, most engaging performance of the production, unquestionably the most difficult role to portray. He connects Alan directly and clearly to every other character, even when refusing to relate to them. His anger and frustration, pent up and tortured, are terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. No matter how crazed he becomes, how obsessive his behavior, he invites the audience inside his head and heart. His crazy love for the horses is exciting, infectious. When he rides Nugget alone and naked in the dark, the audience revels in his exultation and feels his heart pounding along with the flying hooves. In spite of the cruelty of the violent act Alan commits, the audience never stops wanting to understand him. Swarner gives an expansive, nuanced performance that fully engages the audience and carries the play. Through him, the symbolic merges with the real, and what remains remarkable about Shaffer’s tumultuous Equus springs full-blown to life.
Equus as horse opera? Yes. And no. Equus the play, lusciously written but outdated in concept, may not warrant deeper analysis than a dose of soap opera. With respect and affection, I believe that Uptown Players’ production makes a genuinely entertaining evening of theater that can inspire lively, thought-provoking discussion after. Like Martin Dysart, we all “need a way of seeing in the dark” to discover inner truth. We all suffer at some level from a “sharp chain in the mouth that never comes out.” The ritual that live theater embodies can light a path to restoration and resolution. Strap on your spurs; get ready for satisfying theatrical horseplay with Uptown Players.
Peter Shaffer’s Equus runs through March 21. For tickets:
Uptown Players 214-219-2718 www.uptownplayers.org
PHOTO: by Mike Morgan– Max Swarner, Daylon Walton (above)
The term horse opera, originally coined by silent film-era Western star William S. Hart, is used variously to convey either disparagement or affection and refers to a performance piece that can be extremely cliched or formulaic (in the manner of a soap opera). The name “horse opera” was also derived in part from the musical sequences frequently featured in performances which depicted a cowboy singing to his horse. (from Wikipedia)
Brief quote about Laing’s psychological theories from Ben Brantley’s NT Times review of Equus from September 2008: theater.nytimes.com/2008/09/26/theater/reviews/26equu.html