Dark, dappled light spreads across the white flanks of a beautiful young man, pooling into a soft, marshy gold at his bony feet. He stands center stage, utterly naked, pressing himself against the neck of a mythic-looking man-horse. They are still, erotic and godlike in their majesty, boy embracing equine while the stage slowly spins, and the heavy notes of some long-ago tune drift in the air.
With this extraordinary image, director Stephen Rayne yanks Peter Shaffer's 1975 Tony Award-winning Equus into the 21st century, creating one of the Alley's most anticipated events of the season. Long considered a modern classic, Shaffer's exotic story is full of the sort of sexy, psychological intrigue that could keep audiences curious for decades.
The naked boy, we discover, is 17-year-old Alan Strang (Ben Nordstrom). Seems he has taken a metal spike and gouged out the eyes of six fine horses, much to the horror of his entire community. The British magistrates in his English town want to see him imprisoned -- all except for one, that is. Hesther (Elizabeth Heflin), who has persuaded her fellow judges to lock up the poor boy in a hospital, knows "most people are going to be disgusted by the whole thing, including doctors." The good-hearted judge pleads the boy's case to her favorite colleague, Dr. Martin Dysart (James Black), a burned-out, middle-aged child psychiatrist.
The overworked Dysart is wary but compelled by Alan's strange story. He, like most, wants to understand the motivation behind the apparent savagery. The boy has yet to offer any explanation; at his trial, he sat in the witness chair and sang songs from TV commercials. He does the same thing when he first meets Dysart. Little by little, though, the story is unveiled. Alan's parents provide some clues: His mother is a religious zealot who believes sex is "spiritual." She has advised her son to "prepare himself for the most important happening of his life." His father is a loner, a printer who has little to say to his wife or son.
Dysart, like a good detective, begins to put the pieces of Alan's madness together. The parents, the dreams and the weird obsession with horses all begin to make sense. The story gets to him: Alan's strange passion, his wild eyes, all of it. Dysart finds himself envying his patient. In midlife, the shrink takes an inventory of his sorry state: a wife he doesn't love and a profession he doubts. "I settled for pallid and provincial," he muses, while the "freaky boy" knows real "passion." Strange as it sounds, Dysart finds a kind of truth in Alan's madness.
It's a romantic notion, to be sure, and one that worked better in the 1970s, when it was compelling to believe that the mad somehow were closer to the gods. Unfortunately for Shaffer's script, these romantic notions got shot down along the way. Prozac and Zoloft entered our collective lexicon; today we know a lot more about the biology of mental illness. That a shrink would actually think his patient is better off mad seems so silly it's hard to watch without thinking there's something a little batty about the self-indulgent Dysart himself.
Even if Shaffer's dated work didn't strain credibility, the timing of the Alley production would. What begins as an extraordinary vision of modern mythmaking unravels as soon as Black interrupts the image of the naked man-boy. Black is woefully miscast as Dysart. He certainly looks the part in his frumpy brown clothes. But such trappings can't contain the expansive radiance of Black, who tries awfully hard to make himself small. The result is a performance that's too general, too vague, and not nearly as nuanced as the wondrous performances Black has given in the past.
Likewise, Nordstrom as the wild Strang seems to be having a hard go of it. Several comments are made about the character's eyes, and Nordstrom does his best to show us those crazy orbs. He practically leaps onto the stage with his eyes bulging like a madman. But he is infinitely more believable when he stops straining and simply lives the part and tells his compelling story.
James Belcher as the brooding Frank Strang and Ty Mayberry as a regal horse offer the strongest work. And designer Jeanne Button's horse costumes are simply stunning. But the script has become an antique -- lovely in its conception, admirable for its construction, but filled with romantic notions about madness that no longer apply.
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