Horses, sexual angst, and first-rate acting in New Theatre's thrilling Equus
New Theatre's Equus begins with a vision of a beast you've never seen before. A mess of limbs, some vestigial, some seemingly ingrown; some hair, browns and reds mashed together in senseless patterns; and above it all, the great, inscrutable head of a horse. In a moment, you realize you are seeing two creatures artfully posed together — Alan Strang (David Hemphill) and a horse named Nugget (Ricardo Rodriguez).
Still, for several long moments it is unclear exactly where Strang ends and Nugget begins or which limbs belong to which creature. It's a kind of violation of nature, but not a violent one — a melding rather than a rending. Your impressions are further confused by the inability to see how the horse is standing. Nugget's hooves appear to be levitating perhaps nine inches off the ground, his weight supported by the gentle points of contact between his body and that of Strang, the boy who has used a hoof pick to blind him and five other horses.
The tableau is not essential to the story. The play's first monologue, delivered by Dr. Martin Dysart (James Samuel Randolph), could proceed well enough without it. But it is precisely the kind of creepy/lovely touch that director Ricky J. Martinez has added throughout the show, revealing how much life and richness are left in Peter Shaffer's old play.
Equus is a story told in the past tense, largely from Dysart's office at the London children's sanitarium where he has worked for years. Magistrate Hesther Saloman (Linda Bernhard) has tasked Dysart with helping Alan Strang, a quick-witted, soft-spoken, and heretofore horse-loving adolescent who has been arrested for blinding the horses and who would be in prison if Saloman hadn't been convinced the boy's problems were psychological rather than criminal.
It transpires that Strang has built up a kind of personal religion centered on the horses, cobbled together from bits of his zealot mother's dark brand of Protestantism and his father's no less virulent version of materialist socialism. It further transpires that Dysart — one of the most transparently self-aware characters in theater history — actually envies the boy's life of secret horse-worship. Dysart, a student of classical Greece, spends his days lamenting the banality of sane, secular society. Though basically godless, he yearns for worship, romance, magic, mystery — for ecstasy. And while he wouldn't go so far as to condone the blinding of horses in a mystical spasm, he's not sure he's doing the boy any favors by ripping him away from a state in which mystical spasms are possible.
With the exception of one scene that shows Dysart and Saloman in a knock-down-drag-out verbal brawl, even though the script seems to call for a more cordial kind of disagreement, Martinez's direction is sure, smart, and sometimes thrillingly imaginative. He's done a fine job of imagining his show's visual elements: the skeletal horse heads dangling from the rafters surrounding the stage (which themselves suggest the shape of horses' legs); the way Dysart and Strang seem to huddle together in a pool of light at center stage during their therapy sessions as though their rational discourse were keeping some terrible darkness at bay. By using the actors who play the secondary characters to add sound effects from the shadows — chanting, whispering, singing, hoof-scuffing — Martinez conjures an aura of fathomless mystery, providing a sensual counterbalance to Dysart's learned, hyper-sane patter. From time to time, Dysart laments that the days of the old Greek gods are gone; in Martinez's production, you can imagine them slithering around in the wings just out of Dysart's sight.
With the exception of Laura Turnbull's Dora Strang, the secondary characters seem unformed, but that barely detracts from the show: They are hardly ever called upon to do anything. So, for more than two hours, the play deals almost exclusively with Randolph's Dysart and Hemphill's Strang. And that's wonderful.
Stupid actors cannot convincingly play smart people (though smart people can play stupid ones), and merely smart actors cannot play brilliant people. Dysart is brilliant, a man whose learning is so broad and deep that you feel you can gain an education from just the cadences of his speech. He goes on and on about classical antiquity, primitivism, gods, demons, and worship, and it is apparent, in every way that counts, Randolph isn't faking a word. To watch him is to watch a man who understands every aspect of his part, who has appraised every line and the sentiment behind it and found himself in at least provisional agreement. He becomes Dysart from the brain out and becomes him completely.
Yet for all of Randolph's blazing intelligence, New Theatre's Equus will be remembered primarily as David Hemphill's coming-out. His Alan Strang is a career-making performance of shocking intensity. At its core, the role of Strang is about the vulnerability of the adolescent male — the smallness and breakableness of his ego and sense of self, especially his sexual sense of self.
In most boys' lives, there is at least one moment of sexual mishap and enormity in which he is filled with shame and hopelessness so immense it seems it could swallow his life. Equus pictures that moment and lays it naked and raw on the stage. Hemphill more than does it justice. In a long scene toward the end of the play, he detonates all of that sexual angst like the first rumble of the apocalypse. And he's just as convincing in the play's quieter moments. He captures Strang's combination of petulance and sensitivity so well he exudes both qualities simultaneously, which is quite a trick. (He is also the only actor whose southern English accent remains consistent throughout the performance.) It's a shame roles of the complexity of Alan Strang aren't performed in South Florida very often. From now on, Hemphill will need them just to flex his muscles.
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