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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
All this said, Berkshire Theatre Festival and director Scott Schwartz deserve our thanks for giving us a chance to revisit this now middle-aged play -- or, for those who know only Sidney Lumet's true-to-the original film adaptation starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth, to experience it live. The on stage nudity no longer shocks. Edward Albee's The Goat: Who Is Sylvia, has brought Shaffer's exploration of normalcy via a mythic and erotically charged animal-human relationship full circle. But even with its softened by time edge and some questionable directorial choices, Equus, remains a heady rumination on parenting, psychiatry and passion.
The BTF production is fortunate to have Victor Slezak to take on the demanding role of the play's narrator and main player, Dr.Martin Dysart. Besides being masterfully at ease with the lengthy chunks of dialogue as well as the emotional demands of the role, Slezak makes the most of the text's metaphoric richness (as in his rueful "There is now, in my mouth, this charp chain. And it never comes out" and the dark the humorous lines with which Shaffer punctuates the text (for example, when he ironically deprecates his calling with "one great thing about being in the adjustment business: you're never short of customers"). Randy Harrison, perhaps best known to most people through TV's Queer as Folk, is not as nuanced an actor as Slezak or as adept at Brit-speak, but he's a perfect physical fit for the other key character, Alan Strang.
Though inspired by a news story about a teenager who had for no apparent reason blinded several horses, Equus is strictly a work of imagination. The crime from the news story is what lands young Alan Strang in an English mental hospital. He's been sent there by Hesther Salomon (her name and the role she plays a nice bit of symbolim), the magistrate in charge of the case, in the hopes that her friend, the respected child psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart, can restore his sanity so that he can function as a normal member of society. What makes Alan's deed so unfathomable is that he tended these horses with loving devotion as a weekend stable hand for over a year. Dr. Dysart does manage to unlock the young man's troubled psyche, but something about Alan's spiritual and sexual journey into madness also shines a reflecting light on his own passionless life, which ultimately raises the issue of whether curing Alan will condemn him to a life that can only be lived at a dull, steady pace, never at an emotionally invigorating gallop.
Ultimately, the departure from the playwright's intended simplicity tends to distract from and upstage the drama and diminish the impact of the play's mystic aura and the secondary characters, especially Alan's parents, Dora and Frank Strang -- though I have no complaints about the performances of John Curless as the dominating atheist socialist and Pamela Payton-Wright as the mother whose fanatical religious bent unwittingly lays the foundation for Alan's spiritual confusion. Roberta Maxwell's Hesther (she played Dora in the original production) is somewhat too dispassionate and judge-like as the voice of civility and the sounding board for the increasingly conflicted Dysart.
Tara Franklin is fine in her small but crucial role as the girl who introduces Alan to the stable owner (Don Sparks, in an even smaller but also well-played role) and unwittingly causes the explosion that follows their movie date (that shadowy movie scene is one of play's highlights). The black palette in which Jess Goldstein has dressed and masked the horse chorus smacks a bit of S&M bikers but Richie duPont, Joe Jung, Brad Kilgore, Ryan O'Shaughnesey, Brian Sell are theatrical and plausible; so is Steve Wilson as the God-Horse Nuggett and also the Horseman who gives the toddler Alan a ride at once thrilling and traumatizing.
Even if you end up wishing, as I did, that this were a less busy and showy production, one that trusted Shaffer's words to provide the pyrotechnics, this Equus is well worth seeing, if only for Victor Slezak's bravura performance. A caveat: Now as thirty years ago, this is not for kids or anyone squamish about nudity.