When a horse isn’t a horse: Equus

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March 29, 2001

Karl Marx once said that religion is the opiate of the masses. Yet even at a Catholic university like Georgetown, a lot of the students percieve religion and god as a less influencial force in their daily lives than sex. It may seem an odd comparison at first, but there does appear to be a link between the concepts of power, religion, sex and pure force. It is this relation that Peter Shaffer’s play Equus explores. When Nomadic decided to produce it last year, they took on the very heavy burden of not only gaining an understanding of these concepts for themselves but of finding an effective way to present that understanding to the students at Georgetown.

Clayton Lord’s (CAS ‘03) capable direction of this very intense, sophisticated and controversial play certainly helps to lessen that burden, but even so, Schaffer’s script remains incredibly demanding for Nomadic’s cast. The story begins with the very complex Dr. Dysart (Joe Krauss, SFS ‘03), a respected psychologist whose lack of passion for just about everything contradicts his intense interest in helping a very disturbed teenager named Alan Strang (Andrew Varhol, MSB ‘02). Despite his extreme love of horses, the young Alan had speared the eyes of half a dozen horses in what we imagine to be a fit of rage and arrives at the hospital for his extended treatment from Dysart. As soon as he enters, Varhol’s psychotic stare and intense mannerisms quickly overpower the monotonous voice of Krauss’ intellectual personality. The contrast works well, but especially at first, the extent to which these incredibly complex characters relate to each other, both as opposites and equals, is a little unclear.

Physically, Varhol is very solid and forceful, but when he speaks, his uncertainty about Alan’s identity makes him seem almost weak. While strong and daring in his overall performance, Varhol has trouble with the intricacies of the the very complex character, afraid yet fierce, cold yet needy. Similarly, Krauss manages to explore Dysart’s different sides but never establishes a solid identity. Occassionally tripping over his lines, he bounces back and forth between an apathetic, over-analytical bore and a warm-hearted, intensely emotional man. While the two leads do an impressive job with the complexities inherent in Shaffer’s script, the characters remain slightly inaccessible as the actors themselves seem to struggle with the roles’ true nature.

As the play progresses, though, the audience learns enough to better understand their personalities, in part through Alan’s parents, the godfearing Dora (Susanna McGuire, CAS ‘01) and the bitter and lonely Frank (Gibson Cima, CAS ‘04). McGuire’s solid performance, disrupted only by her overly-frequent smiling, provides part of an explanation to young Alan’s incessant mutterings, fear of sleep and general obssessiveness. But it isn’t until we see more interactions between her, Krauss and Cima, who also teeters on his character’s complexity, that we understand the extent of Alan’s disturbing obsession with horses. As the plot slowly unfolds, so does the explanation behind Alan’s gruesome act of animal violence.

The most notable aspect of the play’s progression though, is the intensity that builds with almost every scene. The abstract link between sex and religion becomes more concrete as we see graphic images of excessive worship, teenage sex, psychotic episodes and even beastiality. (No, there is not full nudity at any point, but Kristen Krikorian [CAS ‘04], who successfully plays Jill, the sex-intrigued but generally typical girl “friend” of Alan, does find herself in some “scant” clothing in the highly climactic ending scene.)

The lead characters are able to maintain this intensity by not shying away from the drama, but the most significant contribution comes from Lord’s artful set design and extremely smooth blocking. A relatively bare central platform allows Lord to swiftly and easily create dream sequences and switch between locations. The everpresent characters remain seated in a circle around this platform and seem to blend in with the barren set on the edge.

But it’s what lies on this circular boarder that really strikes the audience; a shattered glass serves as a projection screen for haunting images and is placed between burned columns and six live actors wearing horse-shaped metal apparatuses. When they’re not on stage playing the object of Alan’s obsession, these six characters sit eerily on the boarder, giving the sense of an ever-watchful presence. The all black, white and gray costumes further add to the generally spooky atmoshpere on stage. Overall, the set helps the audience understand the harshness of Alan’s world and the drabness of Dysart’s and more importantly it’s unobtrusiveness, lets the characters interact easily. In a play where relationships and feelings are the focus, that factor is crucial.

Unfortunately, the aspect in which this play lags is not the set, but those very crucial character interactions. While there is no doubt that the cast’s treatment of these roles shows thought and talent as they attempt to explore the script’s complexities, a majority of the characters on stage fail to firmly establish their characters. Though the acting would undoubtedly suffice for almost any other play, Shaffer’s work, based on extremely intense feelings and serious psychological issues, requires a little more exactness. The cast set out to tackle a very challenging piece and while they displayed tremendous talent and effort, they fell just short of perfection.

Nonetheless, Nomadic manages to deliver a performance that will undoubtedly hold your attention and send you away thinking. If you like thought-provoking subjects, intense emotions and controversial scenes (and I’m not just referring to the partial nudity), then this nearly three hour production will not be a waste of time.

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