Wmc's 'Equus' Offers Chilling Psychological Study

November 20, 1991|By Tim Weinfeld | Tim Weinfeld,Contributing theater critic

WESTMINSTER — Seventeen-year-old Alan Strang has hideously blinded six horses and no one knows why. An outraged community demands justice, but the judge commits the boy to a psychiatric hospital for treatment by Dr. Martin Dysart.

Thus begins playwright Peter Shaffer's disturbing and controversial "Equus," on stage through Saturday at Western Maryland College.

The play, two hours of chilling investigation into the psychologyof sexual and religious passion, is less concerned with what happened than with why.

When "Equus" opened in New York in 1974, reviewers praised the work of Peter Firth in the role of the disturbed boy.

What was true then is true now. Once more, this most unconventionaldrama is marked by a young actor's amazing performance.

Keith Purcaro is remarkably effective, meeting the role's incredible emotionaldemands without over-acting.

Scott Grocki is strong yet balanced as the psychiatrist, a powerful role pioneered on the stage by Anthony Hopkins. Grocki's maturity and experience help him shape his characters effectively. Here, he allows feelings and thoughts to arise naturally and to maintain a sense of proportion.

Dysart begins the play speaking of being "lost," of lacking horsepower. He is a man who lives life on a small scale, who no longer kisses his wife and whose interests revolve around dead civilizations.

By contrast, Strang is the personification of passion. And it is upon this difference that the play depends for what Shaffer wants to say about the nature of man.

Strang comes from a dysfunctional home, where his mother is a religious fanatic and the father watches pornography. The boy has a passion for equus, greek for "the horse," and believes the animals are gods watching his every move.

Dysart's task is to "cure" him. He agonizes over removing from the boy the passion of which he, the doctor, is bereft.

The scene design and the costuming of the horses is pretty much what Shaffer asks for and what was used in the original London and New York productions.

The horses heads are wonderful. Butaside from the striking end of the first act, the potential for great theatrical effect in the presence and staging of the six "animals" is surprisingly unrealized.

The brilliant innovation here is director-designer Ira Domser's use of Alumni Hall. The stage/operating theater/equestrian circle is a raised platform that appears to float in space in the orchestra section while the audience occupies only the balcony.

The arrangement's greatest asset is the resulting shadow of the action on the curtain behind the stage. This provides spine-tingling visual support to a powerful first-act climax.

Less positiveis that this arrangement results in a "thrust" stage, with the audience on three sides. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, except that Domser plays some of the most important action, direct audience confrontations, all the way down stage. Many audience members are able to see Dysart's back and little more.

The production's nudity is no more than is required by the play. Costumes and hairstyles onlyconfuse, however, offering a parade of the decades from the 1930s tothe present.

The lighting and sound, especially the unnerving reverberation effect, strengthen the production.

The supporting cast supports and not much more. The boy gets the passion, the rest serve as contrast.

There is one very jarring element. Shaffer portrays the judge who brings the boy to Dysart as a warm, wise (her name is Salomon) Jewish matron. Domser gives us a rigid, uptight WASP. We get pinching pumps when what is called for is old shoes.

Mature audiences will not be disappointed by this highly controversial and provocative piece of theater.

"Equus" continues at 8 p.m. today through Saturday at Alumni Hall at Western Maryland College in Westminster. Tickets are $5 for adults, $2 for students. Adults only. Information: 857-2448.

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