Incline’s Equus Complex and Challenging
Posted On July 7, 2017
Review by Doug Iden of Equus: Incline Theatre
Peter Shaffer’s 1973 masterwork Equus galloped onto the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre Stage this weekend. Named for the Latin word for horse, the play tells the story of a horrific crime committed by a young man who blinds six equines in his care. Psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart (played by veteran actor Michael Douglas Hall) is called in to consult on the case which starts a perilous psychological journey for both men. With strong echoes of Greek Tragedy, Dysart tries to determine why the young man, Alan Strang (strange?), played very convincingly by Christopher Carter, committed this heinous crime.
The play opens with a dialogue from Dysart which breaks normal convention by speaking directly to the audience during which he bemoans ever having met the disturbed young man. Thereafter, normal action takes place but Dysart frequently uses the soliloquy convention to allow the audience to understand his thinking process. The extremely rich dialogue is a major strength of the play but can be difficult to follow at times because of its frequent allusions to Greek mythology and theater. Upon the psychiatrist’s first meeting, he is introduced to an enigma who alternates between silence and babbling nonsensical words or TV jingles. The boy seems dispassionate but that could be a ruse. The doctor’s dilemma is how to break through the self-imposed shell and develop a level of trust with his patient.
The investigation (and it does play like a classic mystery) takes the doctor to Alan’s parents Frank (Rory Sheridan) and Dora (Martha Slater) and to the young lady Jill (Hannah Gregory) with whom he may or may be having an affair. The play flashes rapidly between the present and the past and you need to pay close attention since the scenes blend into each other throughout the play.
Gradually, we find out that Alan has had a passion for horses since he was young. He has the opportunity to work at a stable and, tutored by Jill, becomes emotionally involved with the horses, especially one named Nugget (played stoically by Peter Cutler wearing an equine mask). Alan treats Nugget very sensually and starts to worship the horse as a deity. Alan develops a bizarre, pathological religious obsession with horses which is a major factor in his illness and may be the answer to his cure.
At the same time, we discover that Dr. Dysart is, emotionally, very dispassionate as he describes his platonic relationship with his wife. Dysart’s interest is in ancient Greek culture and philosophy but his passion is as dead as the civilization which he studies. He dreams about being a Greek official who must condone ritual sacrifice which he personally finds untenable.
Consequently, Hall, for the most part, plays Dysart as a remote, almost disembodied character who studies Alan more like a lab rat than a person. However, as Dysart perceives his own shortcomings and frustrations with his diagnosis, Hall’s demeanor becomes increasingly angry and disillusioned. Carter whipsaws between silence, intransigence, passion and anger. The “battle” between doctor and patient is well depicted by the actors. The supporting cast, especially Hannah Gregory, is also very good.
The stark set, designed by Brett Bowling, resembles a new-house construction with only the framing completed. The set functions as a stable, the parent’s house, Alan’s room at the hospital and the entry point onto the main stage which, combined with the lighting and some percussion, creates a surrealistic, abstract setting.
This is a good play but a very challenging one. It investigates the nature of insanity, religion, ritual sacrifice, sexual compulsion, impotence and guilt. The answers are up to the audience. Also note that the play has total male and female nudity which is integral to the play and not done gratuitously.
The play opened in England in 1973 and won a Tony in 1975 with its Broadway debut. There have been many revivals of the play including the recent version starring Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) as Alan plus a movie version starring Richard Burton as Dysart.
Equus appears at the Incline Theater through April 23. For show times and ticket information, check the Cincinnati Landmark Productions website.