O Mighty Equus
I was beyond thrilled when I arrived in the Berkshires to see a Sondheim Pops concert at Tanglewood and learned that the Berkshire Theatre Festival had just started previews for "Equus." I mean, over-the-moon thrilled. I had never seen it before, and have been waiting for over 25 years to do so.
I first read "Equus" when I was in 6th or 7th grade, and I remember that it took my breath away. I was flattened when I finished; gasping like a grounded catfish. I could see it all in my mind's eye: the damaged boy Alan, the damaged psychiatrist Martin Dysart, and the horses of Alan's feverish obsession. I was fascinated by this story of a boy who had blinded six horses with a hoof pick: Why did he do it? How would they heal him? And what did "healing" mean in this context?
Even at that young age I had a sense of compassion for the fragile, deranged, horse-worshiping Alan, and an equal sense of compassion for his doctor, Martin Dysart, a character who goes to Greece for three weeks a year to study and encounter -- in a purely safe, tourist-approved manner -- the kind of ecstatic, fierce, pagan religious experience that Alan actually has with his equine god.
It was my first acquaintance with Dionysian religion and it left a very lasting impression. When I later reached the professional and vocational crisis moment that eventually led me to Divinity School, I leafed one afternoon through course catalogs for an MSW degree and remembered Dr. Martin Dysart. I remembered his agonies about divesting his patient of his rapturous religious ecstasy in the name of "normality," and I knew that I wasn't called to that kind of therapeutic work. I wanted to respect the crazy. I wanted to be able to hear about people's visions, obsessions, kinks, fantasies, spirit hauntings and other socially unacceptable realities without feeling the obligation to enlighten them out of their illusions/delusions.
(I had a dream around this time that just about scared the hair off my head and informed me that I was making absolutely the right choice.)
Life is enchanted. That enchantment can be a dangerous and violent thing. The gods are not sweetness and light. I'm not a minister of the god of sweetness and light. I'm not a preacher of it, either. I can't tell you how gratifying it was to sit in that theatre on Thursday afternoon feeling exactly as flattened by seeing "Equus" as I did first reading it as a girl. This is just why we need art in our lives; how the arts guide our souls.
The play is about so many things: psychiatry as an art form that both heals and destroys the psyche, the tendency in modern psychology to blame parents for all their children's sins and crimes, and the tremendous sexual power (eros) of some forms of religious devotion (let me just say that the "horse" costumes in this production -- all hot young guys in studded harnesses and platform "hooves"-- are sure to launch dozens of uncomfortable fantasies among the more staid Berkshire audience members. Heh-heh. When I met the lead horse-actor after the show (talented hottie Steve Wilson) I really wanted to say, "Hey Nugget. Can I pet you?" Gosh, he was that kind of handsome that makes you look at the ground and kick your toe in the dirt. We did talk about the show and stamp the ground and make horsey snorting noises together, though, and that was fun).
I'm still a little overwhelmed. What I really wanted to do after the curtain call was to stay in my seat and have a loud, wailing cry but that's not really the kind of instinct you want to indulge unless you want to get invited to the comfort station. So ever since late Thursday afternoon there has been a horse-sized lump in my throat and a big heavy debt of gratitude to playwright Peter Schaffer in my heart.
Read it, won't you? And if you can get out to see the production, so much the better. Randy Harrison of "Queer As Folk" fame makes a wonderfully vulnerable, beautiful Alan Strang, and John Curless and Pamela Payton-Wright are his tender, believable parents. Ms. Payton-Wright's second-act diatribe against Dr. Dysart is particularly raw and upsetting. Jill Michael took a terrible fall on her keester during Thursday's show and recovered with fair bravado as Nurse, and Tara Franklin makes the potentially tarty character Jill lovely, sweet and sympathetic. It did not escape my notice that she had a lovely, shiny "ponytail" of hair, which she took down to lovely effect in the second act. Speaking of which, Miss Franklin and Mr. Harrison deserve extra kudos for playing their long nude scene with a total lack of inhibition or stage tricks, and with refreshing honesty. Victor Slezak went up on a lot of dialogue and seems to have borrowed too many of his inflections directly from Sir Anthony Hopkins but nevertheless turned in a moving, consistent, impressive, well-developed and eventually loveable Dr. Dysart.
All praise to director Scott Schwartz for inventive but not overly-snazzy or distracting staging, and to Gus Someone (who sat next to me in the first row of the balcony taking notes Thursday afternoon) for his movement work with the "horses," whose masks were also gorgeous and effective. There were many complicated sound cues, all done well and well-designed. Lighting and sets and costumes, ditto.Personal to Mr. Victor Slezak: I really wasn't trying to stalk you. I simply wanted to shake your hand and personally thank you for bringing Dr. Dysart to life for me. I've played musical theatre roles that make Martin Dysart look like a nap in the green room, darling, and I ALWAYS make time for a few autographs if people are kind enough to want them, EVEN between matinees and evening performances. I didn't mean to frighten you by following you for a block; I actually thought you might stop and wait for the one minute it would have taken for me to catch up to you. Sorry you missed me. Your loss. I had many nice things to say.