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 ...

Equus is a play of soaring ideas and high-flying language — an English Major’s paradise. Hell, I could talk about it forever. If you majored in Law, Systems Analysis or Plumbing, you might find that hellish, so I won’t. So, let’s say you put a gun to my head and said: “Cut to the chase. What’s this play about?” I’d say, “Well, since you put it that way.” Click. “Divine madness. Shaffer’s asking: Do we have the right to cure some loony if he’s a divine loony?”
That question is the heart of Shaffer’s play.

Being a very clever playwright, Shaffer doesn’t ask it immediately. He doesn’t even let you know what’s going on, at first. Shafer structures his play like a psychological detective story—a Whydunnit.

Martin Dysart (Paul Whitworth), the shrink at a regional hospital in the UK, winds up with a painful case. Alan Strang, a 17-year-old stable boy has, inexplicably, blinded six horses. The shrink, by fair means or foul, digs the irrational reason for this deed out of the kid. The playwright doles out the facts in dribs and drabs. The audience discovers the facts when the shrink does. It takes a long time. Click. No, I haven’t forgotten that gun to my head.

I'll get this over with as fast as I can. I promise.

OK. Lined up, the facts are these: As a six year old child, Alan Strang (Juan Javier Cardenas) became obsessed with horses after an upper class twit gave him a pony ride on the beach. For little Alan, the ride was a peak experience and a quasi-sexual one. It marked him—imprinted him, like one of Konrad Lorenz’ ducks. Alan's parents didn’t notice. Mum (Devora Millman) was a believer in the Old Rugged Cross. Strang’s father (James Clarke) was a working class Socialist of the Old Left. Being a devout atheist, Dad forbade any opiates of the people in his house—including TV and religion. But Mum snuck in bits of faith when Dad wasn’t looking: tales of the saints and lurid, masochistic imagery Mel Gibson would love. In whispered chats with her son, Mum also emphasized that God was watching. Always. Little Alan conflated Mum’s popular Christianity with his horse fixation. Alan’s savior became Equus: a horse deity; a god-slave spirit present in all horses. As When Alan became a teen, he devoted himself to Equus with secret rituals of flagellation and incantation. When Jill (Jessi Blue Gormezano), a teenage girl he knew offered him a job at a stable, Alan jumped at the chance. Alan’s rituals became less abstract now that he had actual horses to attend to. Unbeknownst to the stable owner, Alan (with unbridled enthusiasm) enjoyed secret bareback riding sessions at night with his favorite horse, Nugget. Alan (naked himself) rode Nugget through the moors, imagining himself a Centaur, becoming one flesh with the horse, his ultimate dream. (This Asolo production shows Alan flooded in a ring of spotlights at his moment of consummation, angelic choirs singing. Alan throws back his head and hands and howls in ecstasy—a true horse-gasm). This goes on. Then, one night, Alan, has sex with the girl in the stable – or tries, but can’t. Equus is a jealous god. Alan knows. Even if he’s shut the stable door, Equus, like Jesus, sees all. Once the girl leaves, he solves his problem by blinding his all-seeing God—or, at least, the actual six horses in the stable.

It’s powerful stuff. Shaffer has consistently and honestly worked out the details of a post-Christian, neo-pagan belief system in the mind of a crack-brained stable boy.

Oddly, the sane psychiatrist is less convincing. And his psychiatry is less convincing than the kid's neo-paganism! What kind of a psychiatrist is he anyway? Behaviorist? Freudian? Jungian?

Shaffer's shrink is more of a mouthpiece for the playwright's critique of psychiatry than a self-consistent character. In monologue after monologue, Dysart wrestles with the play’s central question: Does he have the right to cure this divine loony? To cure or not to cure, that is the question. As far as Dysart can see, he has two options: (A) Allow Alan to remain in his divine madness. (B) Cure Alan—curing him defined as turning him into a soulless robot who can function in society. Option (C) never occurs to Dysart: Cure Alan without diminishing him. In this shrink’s shrunken view (and, I think, Shaffer’s badly disguised view) successful psychiatric treatment necessarily eviscerates the soul; Dysart takes that as a given. Sanity is psychic impoverishment; lunacy is pagan bliss. Dysart is a shrink who romanticizes madness. You wonder where he did his residency.

Ah well. Anyone who sees a psychiatrist should have his head examined. Let’s leave it at that.

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