Friday, March 28, 2008

A horse is a horse

Peter Shaffer's Equus is a tough play to summarize. So I'll just do it badly. Once upon a time in England a stable boy went nuts and blinded some horses. The cause is a crackpot, post-Christian pagan religion in his own mind. Or maybe an unhappy childhood. A shrink examines the kid. Instead of healing him, he starts to question his own religion of psychiatry. So it goes.

This Asolo production presents the play’s twisted, emerging narrative as a counterpoint of bewildered sanity (the shrink’s point of view) and divine madness (Alan’s point of view, sometime ecstatic, sometimes hopeless.) The director frames the action in psychological space. Physical space? Well, there isn't much. You don’t get a sense of specific people interacting in a specific place and time. The inventive set is as spare and minimalist as an anal-retentive’s desk. The world on stage is a world of words; the world beyond the words is only hinted at. In this production, the gritty, physical Brittan of 1973 is less real than Alan’s mad dream of his horse god.

Technically, the production is first rate. The starts and stops of the conversational rhythms: the dance of action inside the minimal set: a lighted Cartesian grid below an arch—suggesting, as needed, a stable, sanitarium, or a home.

Emotionally, it’s as good as it gets. Michael Donald Edwards’ direction gets under your skin. The actors inhabit their characters. Cardenas is damn good as the mad Alan, a lunatic John Boy embodying the viciousness of innocence; Mum and Dad could easily come off as jerks, but Millman and Jones both manage to create unique individuals you care about; Gormezano is fine as a normal teenage lass attracted to a lad who isn’t so normal; Randy Danson creates a person out of her role as the Nurse, otherwise known as Ms. Draw-Out-the-Protagonist; Whitworth, finally, is brilliant as the shrink, eating his heart out, trying to do his job when he’s not so sure it should be done. Both direction and performance are masterful.
And it's great subject matter.

The text they're performing is brilliant, with language approaching the heights of Shakespeare at times. That said, the text has flaws. And deliberate deceptions. (There's an extended analysis at the end for those who actually care.) But it boils down to beautiful language covers up bad logic.

Shaffer’s brilliant play feels like a brilliant cheat—a series of allegorical chess moves in which the playwright’s unbelievable, impossible opponent is engineered to lose. Rational Psychiatry vs. Pagan Splendor. Checkmate in 16 moves . The playwright wins! Brilliant Mr. Shaffer. Simply brilliant!

Well, not that brilliant. Real loonies aren’t like Alan. Real psychiatrists aren’t like Dysart — a Freudian who talks like a Jungian and makes the fundamental assumption that psychiatric treatment destroys the soul.

Shaffer offers a believable portrait of madness. His portrait of sanity is unbelievable. It isn’t even a strawman.

It isn’t even there.

Short version: Brilliant answers. Stupid questions.

Through May 4
An Asolo Repertory production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Nitpicky analysis below ...