Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Play Review: Equus

I remember how much hype there was about the play Equus when Daniel Radcliffe (i.e. Harry Potter) was going to play the main character. I knew nothing about the play, other than it had something to do with horses (thanks to all those Latin classes I took growing up), and that at some point the main character gets completely naked. See below:

I heard he's uncircumcised, btw. Image found here.
But I didn't get around to seeing the play until just last weekend. I figured it's a famous play, and the Constellation Theatre Company was putting it on at Source in DC (very metro accessible on 14th Street), so I figured I'd go (plus, the tickets were on Goldstar, so I got a good price).

I suppose I should start with a brief summary. A young man, Alan Strang, blinds six horses, and rather than go to jail, he sees a psychiatrist. Through the interactions that the doctor has with Alan, his parents, and others who know the boy, we learn that Alan has a deep devotion to horses. He worships horses as religious figures, like reincarnations of God ("Equus" is his horse God, and all living horses are like Jesus, the mortal version of Equus/God); at the same time he is sexually attracted to them (but does NOT have actual sex with the horses, as far as I can tell). He works at a stable where he can care for the horses, and rides them in secret so no one knows about his "relationship" with the horses. Long story short: one night he's fooling around with a girl in the barn, feels like the horses are judging him for his "sin," and then blinds them out of anxiety of what Equus and the horses think of him. The play goes back and forth between flashbacks to past events before the stabbing incident, and the "current" events between the doctor and other characters. Now that we have that covered, onto this particular performance...

The theater was very small, so there wasn't a bad seat in the house (although I knew I didn't want to sit in the very first row since I didn't want to be that up-close-and-person with the "full monty"). The set looks like a barn, with wood slats on the floor, big barn doors, and wooden beams across the ceiling to create a roof. The set was very sparse of furniture; only two benches were on stage. When the play first starts, the set goes completely black, and then blue lights, some fog, and the sound of horses walking start to fill the room. It was very eerie! That feeling never really leaves you for the entirety of the performance.

Image found here.
The costumes for the horses were fantastic, and I'm sorry I don't have a better picture. There were six horses total (played by four women and two men), and they were all wearing white/cream-colored clothes and wedge shoes that had metal on the bottom so they could "clip-clop" like horses would. They wore leather accessories to mimic halters, too. They had horse heads on top of their own heads, which looked quite fragile; they were bent like origami to create just the right shape, and had a faint glow from the inside so they lit up. The actors studied horse movements to prepare for their equine roles, and it really showed. The scenes with these horses were very powerful. The ensemble did a great job!

I was impressed with the main actors as well. Michael Kramer plays Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist who is asked to help a young man who has been on trial for blinding six horses. This teenager, Alan Strang, is played by Ross Destiche (who looks similar to Joseph Gordon-Levitt); he is so convincing in his role that, during the talk with the actors after the play, all I could see was an insane young man, not the actor himself! Emily Kester, who plays Jill Mason, is very relatable in her role, and the juxtaposition between her "normal" character and Destiche's "crazy" one is quite interesting.

Image found here.
Those two actors worked quite well together, although the relationship between Dr. Dysart and Alan Strang is much more prevalent within the whole story. But I like the romantic part (well, potential romance), and the attraction is believable between these two. I will also say this: when I pictured what the full nudity scene would be like, I thought I would see some naked guy standing on stage in all his glory reciting some poetic monologue. But in this version, it wasn't like that at all! The nudity is seen in the love scene between these two (both were naked, not just him), and it was quite natural and not awkward at all. The actors were very good with "blocking" certain parts of their bodies, so the scene was tasteful and appropriate. I think I was so impressed just because the nudity wasn't at all what I expected!

I think the "deepest" part of the play is when the doctor laments the fact that he will never feel a passion like Alan feels for horses, and that if he cures Alan of his mental illness, that passion will die ("Doctors can't create passion. They can only take it away."). It seems odd to almost envy a crazy person in any way, but it is interesting to contemplate the feelings that insane people may have and realize that "normal" people may be completely incapable of having such strong emotions. And it is almost sad to think that in order for this young man to get better, he must lose that love and passion he has (be it for a horse or anything/anyone else), and will probably never feel that way ever again. You do become somewhat sympathetic for Alan, and the play almost romanticizes his illness; the play almost sends a message that says, "Normal is boring and mundane," which is a dangerous attitude, but one I'm sure we have all related to at some point. Although many of the doctor's lines were a bit too existential for me, this part definitely struck a chord.

It should be noted that this play was inspired by true events. At some point, I believe in the 1970's, a teenager somewhere in England really did blind six horses. But as the daughter of a veterinarian and someone who has been around horses, I have to say this: I think it would be quite difficult to stab a horse in the eyes, let along six horses (i.e. 12 eyes). For one, even if you did stab the first eye, the horse would make SO much noise that the stableman who sleeps in the barn would definitely hear it and come out to see what was wrong before all six horses were wounded. Also, what are the chances that the boy would come out of the situation physically unharmed? Horses are powerful animals, and the idea that the boy wasn't kicked or stomped on is unlikely. So while I enjoyed the play immensely, this part of the story never really made any sense.

But other than that, I really liked the play, and I definitely recommend seeing it. I also just happened to go on a day when there was a Q&A session afterward with the cast and others involved in the production, which I really liked. It was interesting hearing from the actors about their experiences, and also thinking about what other members of the audience asked, like "What do you think happens to the characters in the future after all of this?" So if you do buy tickets, see if you can go to a show with that extra portion at the end. It's definitely worth it!

Click here to read a review from the Washington Post.

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