Sunday, November 08, 2015

Review - Equus - Theatre Coup d’Etat- 5 stars

A couple of people had asked me in recent days, “Have you seen any really amazing theater that I just have to go out and see?”  The answer had been, unfortunately, “No.”  And then I saw Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of Equus.  Now the answer can be, emphatically, “Yes.”  This show is brilliant, you really need to see it.

“With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces.”

I have to be honest, when I found out Theatre Coup d’Etat was going to stage Peter Shaffer’s drama, my first question was, “Why?”  Not that I don’t remember Equus as being a good solid play to read.  Not that it doesn’t have awards coming out of its ears - the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the New York Outer Critics Award all for Best Play, just for starters.  It also inspired one of my all-time favorite satirical news articles about theater in The Onion.  (No, really, click that.  You're welcome.)  And of course it’s known, if you know nothing else about it, for having humans playing horses, and nudity.  But the play is also over 40 years old.  My last interaction with it was the film version starring Richard Burton as the psychologist and, Burton aside, it was kind of dull.  Does the story really have anything to say to us today? (I know, I know, people get offended if you ask that about Shakespeare, and his plays are about 400 years older than Shaffer’s.)  Turns out the friend who went with me is a big fan of the play, has read it several times.  He was nervous seeing it onstage wouldn’t live up to his expectations.  Thankfully, we were both proven wrong.  Extremely wrong.

“It asks questions that I have avoided all my professional life.”

Because Equus probably wasn’t meant to be translated to film.  And Equus isn’t really meant to simply be read.  Equus needs to be seen and heard, live in front of you.  It’s a uniquely theatrical experience.  Shaffer has crafted this story perfectly for the stage, taking full advantage of the immediacy it can offer, the connection between artists and spectators.  Coup d’Etat’s production, under the ballsy direction of James Napoleon Stone, grabs onto this script with both hands and shakes it until all its secrets come tumbling out.  The play may be set in 1970s England, but the subjects it wrestles with are things we all struggle with today.  The story is vividly alive.

“Worship as many as you can see, and more will appear.”

17-year-old Alan Strang (Kevin Fanshaw) has come into the court of Hester Soloman (Kelly Nelson), accused of blinding six horses with a metal spike to their eyes.  Hester brings Alan’s case to the best psychologist she knows, her friend Dr. Martin Dysart (Charles Numrich).  With the assistance of his caring (but no-nonsense) nurse (Meagan Kedrowski), Dysart tries to piece together what led Alan to commit such an act.  Alan’s parents Frank (Brian Joyce) and Dora Strang (Ellen Apel); Harry Dalton (Jim Ahrens), the owner of the stables where Alan worked; and Jill Mason (Lauren Diesch), Alan’s young co-worker in the stables, all hold pieces of the puzzle.  But to discover the reasons that Alan turned against the horses he seemed to love so much, Dysart needs to delve mostly deeply into the mind and passions of Alan himself.  The first and second act both begin with an image of Alan nuzzling against the neck of the primary horse he loves, named Nugget (Jeff Groff).  Understanding the depth and breadth of the love this horse and young man hold for one another, a love that goes as far as worship, is the key to unlocking Alan’s troubled psyche.

“If you knew God, doctor, you’d know more about the devil.”

Equus doesn’t work if Dysart or Alan don’t work.  Coup d’Etat hit the jackpot with Charles Numrich and Kevin Fanshaw.  Numrich is a marvel.  Dysart has a great number of speeches throughout the play, either to the audience or other characters onstage.  In lesser hands, these monologues might start to blend together or seem repetitive.  Numrich’s art is to mine each and every word and phrase and invest it with real personal meaning.  These are memorized lines but you can almost watch the character’s mind working, as if these thoughts were being revealed and articulated in the moment.

“At least I galloped.  When did you?”

While Dysart unpacks a life of the logic of the mind, Alan is unraveling, buffeted by the passions of his heart.  Fanshaw takes something that could be ridiculous or childish and makes it seem almost noble - a young man’s passion - both spiritual and sexual - channeled through an elaborate fantasy world of communing with horses at night.  An actor can’t be concerned with looking foolish in this situation.  They have to swing for the fences and really commit to the conceit at the center of Equus, or the thing’s just not going to live on stage.  The audience only takes it seriously if Alan takes it seriously.  And so, thanks to Fanshaw, we do.

“I see you.  I see you.  Always!  Everywhere!  Forever!”

Of course his non-speaking partners in this endeavor are equally key.  Groff as Nugget, and the other members of the ensemble taking on the roles of those ill-fated horses (Ahrens, Apel, Joyce, Kedrowski, and Nelson), create a kind of animal Greek chorus.  They chant, they don the outline of horse heads fashioned from wire.  Here again, if anyone worries about looking silly, the whole thing falls apart.  Because they commit, intensely, to this, the audience is carried along.  Groff’s horse self is all the more impressive because he plays an extremely human character elsewhere in the narrative who also holds a clue to Alan’s development.

“I shrank my own life.  No one can do it for you.”

Everyone here goes all out - Apel and Joyce as the parents, Diesch as Alan’s potential love interest, Ahrens as the stable owner, Nelson as the troubled judge, and Kedrowski as the nurse.  Any one of them might have been a stock character, or someone that didn’t make much of an impression.  But handed to this ensemble of actors, guided by this director, each and every one of these characters becomes a fully realized human being.  You feel like you could watch the story again just through their eyes and it would be equally compelling.

“Why?  Why Me?  Why - ultimately - Me?  Do you really imagine you can account for Me?”

The whole of Equus is a ritual - the masks, the movement, the sound, the use of the space.  Dysart and Alan each worship something very different, and each has their faith shaken.  It’s a battle of wills it seems only one of them can win, but the sensible choice also seems like the wrong choice.  The question of whether or not there are any winners at the end of this hangs tantalizingly in the air.  On the page, this borders on self-indulgent twaddle.  In practice, on a stage, it’s mesmerizing.  Just like any great play, it causes you to rethink things you thought you were sure about.  No faith is strong, after all, unless it’s tested.

“Professional menopause, everyone gets it sooner or later.”

I’ll admit my faith in the power and purpose of theater has been a little wobbly lately.  Bold productions like Equus help renew that faith in ways few other things can.  So thanks, Theatre Coup d’Etat.  The rest of you, go see Equus.  

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Photo courtesy of Theatre Coup d'Etat: Kevin Fanshaw as Alan Strang, Charles Numrich as Dr. Martin Dysart in Equus)

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