FOUR BUFFALOS! Strong cast revives EQUUS

THE BASICS:  EQUUS, the 1973 drama by Peter Shaffer presented by The Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed by David Oliver, stars Vincent O’Neill as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart, PJ Tighe as the troubled Alan Strang, with strong support from Margaret Massman, Greg Gjurich, Wendy Hall, Kelsey Mogensen et. al. (including “horses”). EQUUS runs through November 20, Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at both 3 & 7:30, Sundays at 2 at the ICTC’s home, the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. (853-ICTC).  www.irishclassical.com. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission. Advisories: The first act is very long; for mature audiences only (subject matter and nudity).

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The playwright, Peter Shaffer, was intrigued by a small news item about a boy who had blinded six horses, and began imagining how that might have happened. In this drama (1975 Tony Award for best play) a teenage boy is brought to a psychiatric hospital under court order. He is referred to Dr. Martin Dysart, who is unwilling to take on another yet young patient only to fit them to a life of drab existence. The boy, Alan Strang, has maimed six horses in a stable where he is employed, blinding them all in one night using a hoof spike. The psychiatrist determines to have the boy reveal his actions and his motivations and hopes that by helping the boy relive that fateful night, young Alan will be purged of his demons and be “cured.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: First off, this is a very sexy production, and not necessarily because of the nude sex scene in Act II. In fact, the sexual tension that drives the main action is foreshadowed at the first on-stage encounter of the unwilling psychiatrist (Vincent O’Neill) when the lawyer, Hester Salomon (Wendy Hall), cajoles him (well, actually, seduces him but in a professional manner) to take on a new patient. That type of sexual tension has kept and continues to keep many a television series going over multiple seasons. It works if you’ve got it; Wendy Hall has it, and she zips it and buttons it and battens it down in a business suit, but it’s there. It’s the same tension that young Alan Strang will be seen to struggle with, but the adults can keep a lid on, and are therefore more “fit for society.”

The role of Jill Mason, the young woman who tries to introduce Alan to sex, also in Act II, is very well played by Kelsey Mogensen, who is cute as a button, and brings what used to be called a “healthy” attitude about sex to young Alan, whose ideas about sex are anything but. He is as repressed, conflicted, and inchoate as they come. Her role is not easy, walking that fine line between being encouraging but not predatory, flirtatious but not overly so.

And the “horses” are sexy too, for the most part played by young men who obviously work out and appear naked from the waist up wearing wire-sculpture horse masks on their heads and wire-sculpture horse “shoes” on their feet, which make very real to us the unmistakable clomping sound of large, powerful beasts as they move about the stable, choreographed by Gerry Trentham. The group also had a movement and mime coach – Trevor Copp.

Then there are the non-sexy roles of Alan’s parents wonderfully played by Greg Djurich as the repressed, over-protective Frank Strang (who early on the fateful night is seen by his son visiting a porno movie house) and by Margaret Massman as Dora Strang, the religious zealot of the family who ultimately is barred from seeing her son in the psychiatric hospital.

I think that sometimes, for dramatic effect, playwright Peter Shaffer likes to avoid ambiguity in his characters, but, both Djurich and Massman are parents in real life and I thought that might have informed their performances and made them more nuanced.

I have heard several people say that the psychiatry is “dated.” That may be true, but it doesn’t matter, because the psychology is thousands of years old. This is the stuff of Greek myths and legends. In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus, equal in importance. Apollo is the god of reason and rational thought (“Apollonian”) while his brother Dionysus is the god of the irrational, emotional, instinctive, and chaotic (“Dionysian”). Every character, repeat, every character, carries both within. The important point that most people forget is that the brothers are not rivals, they work together. They are simply both parts of a complete picture.

Of course, again for dramatic effect, playwrights enjoy pitting one brother against the other, almost as if it were a prize fight (“Tonight, Live from Las Vegas, Apollo versus Dionysus in the battle for humanity.”) And you can go to any Buffalo theater this season or this week and you’ll see that played out, sometimes in an obvious way (Randle P. McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) and sometimes less obviously (Professor Harold Hill vs. Marion Paroo in THE MUSIC MAN) and sometimes going back and forth between characters (Lee vs. Austin in TRUE WEST).

And so our two main characters deal with these traits. The doctor, unhappy with his predictable Apollonian life wishes to be more Dionysian, trying to help his patient be much less so.

David Dwyer’s staging is very realistic with rough wooden planks that you might find in part of a stable, and in the middle a large turntable which helps when presenting theater in the round. As always, the sound design by Tom Makar is appropriate. The direction by David Oliver adds an unusual element which I thought makes the whole evening more organic, and that is to have all the actors sitting on the perimeter of the stage starting from a few minutes before the play begins the play and staying on stage. That way, as they stand up to play a part, there is no jarring interruption. The transitions are seamless.

And special kudos go to Brian Cavanagh for his muted lighting. It was always appropriate, but especially so during the nude scene, taking away the graphic elements and adding a dream-like quality.

FOUR BUFFALOS (out of five): Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

Review by Peter Hall, Buffalo Rising