`Equus' power still unbridled

Review: Olney Theatre Center production captures beauty, pain and passion of provocative play.

April 28, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Passion and normality are both desirable traits, but what happens when they come into conflict? Peter Shaffer examined that question in his 1973 drama, "Equus," which is receiving a powerful production at Olney Theatre Center.

A 17-year-old stable boy has suddenly and inexplicably blinded six horses. Since then, the only words he has uttered are advertising jingles. The boy is sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of jail. But the child psychiatrist who takes the case has mixed feelings about treating him.

Mitchell Hebert's thoughtful portrayal of doubt-ridden psychiatrist Martin Dysart and Scott Fortier's intense depiction of the troubled teen-ager, Alan Strang, turn the doctor-patient relationship into an emotionally charged one. From the moment Dysart breaks through Alan's defenses, the two develop a wary respect for each other, a respect that, for Dysart, turns into admiration.

"That boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life," repressed, conventional Dysart admits. "I envy it."

The depiction of Alan's passion contributes significantly to the success of director Jim Petosa's production.

Although the play originally was produced with an ensemble of a half-dozen masked actors playing horses, Petosa uses just one.

Christopher Lane, a tall, well-built actor, plays Alan's favorite horse, Nugget, wearing little more than a mane on his back and a loincloth (the costumes are by Rosemary Pardee). Lane's head is nearly shaven, and his face is covered with war paint. On the balls of his feet are wooden hoofs, which require him to stand with his heels off the ground whenever he's on stage.

Most of the time, he stands slightly bent, but when Alan rides him, instead of getting on all fours, Lane straightens up. Alan sits not on his back, but on his shoulders, a pose that emphasizes the reverence and unity Alan feels for horses, instead of his command over them. The rapture the boy feels in his late-night, naked horse-riding forays is conveyed with beauty, drama and sensitivity.

"Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?" Dysart wonders after he realizes the extent of Alan's devotion.

Yet as Helen Hedman's level-headed magistrate keeps reminding Dysart, passion can be painful and destructive. Last week's murders in Littleton, Colo., showed just how destructive a teen-age boy's passion can be.

Maybe there's a way to re-channel destructive passion, but Shaffer's play doesn't explore that. This is a play about the compromises we all must make to live together peaceably. If it leaves you wondering what other avenues are available, then that shows how provocative the play remains more than a quarter century after its debut.

Director Petosa approaches the play's angst with welcome modulation, exemplified by Carolyn Pasquantonio's light touch as the perfectly normal young woman whose romantic interest in Alan inadvertently pushes him over the edge. In fact, Petosa's only overstated moment is the final pieta pose Dysart adopts with Alan.

A more subtle effect is created by James Kronzer's set design, whose basic elements will also be used in Olney's next production -- David Rabe's "A Question of Mercy."

The set is a sterile-looking space that suggests an operating theater, but it has stained-glass windows behind the upper-level, on-stage spectators' gallery. (The original production of "Equus" also had on-stage seats for theatergoers; at Olney, those seats cost a mere $10, but their occupants will find themselves looking mostly at the actors' backs.)

The contrast between the richly colored windows and the clinical room emphasizes the dichotomy at the heart of "Equus" -- the division between raw, unharnessed emotions and cold, rational science. It's a dichotomy that's also been surfacing in recent headlines as experts struggle to find explanations for dangerous emotions. Olney's fine production re-emphasizes how difficult a struggle that is.


Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and some Thursdays and Saturdays. Through May 23

Tickets: $15-$32

Call: 301-924-3400

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