Theater » Theater Feature

Horse Show

Rhodes stages Peter Shaffer's Equus.

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Some plays stand the test of time. Some plays don't. In 1973, Peter Shaffer's Equus took the theater world by storm, garnering award after award and running for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway.

Thirty years later, Shaffer's story about Alan Strang, a 17-year-old boy guilty of blinding six horses, and Martin Dysart, Strang's burned-out analyst, still conjures up the same difficult, emotionally charged questions. It's still a heady, targeted indictment of commercialization. It's still a stomach-turning portrait of sexual repression, the loss of passion, and the exile of God. But many things have changed in the last 30 years, and somehow Shaffer's play has come to seem less like a thorough scouring of our collective psyche and more like a snipe hunt. It's not the production either, as Rhodes has done a fantastic job mounting this difficult, iconic play, sacrificing only its most sensational elements (presumably) for the sake of decency.

But times have changed. Audiences have changed. Daily headlines have changed, and as awful as it may sound to say such a thing, blinding horses hardly rates when compared to typical adolescent crimes of the day. And while Equus may still speak to a post-Columbine audience, the language used is overly familiar. Equus has, no doubt, stood the test of time, but history has rendered it somehow smaller than it once was -- and less devastating.

Strang's parents alternately blame and forgive one another for their child turning out so badly. The father is a socialist and an atheist who is certain that the religious mumbo jumbo his wife espouses has ruined the boy's mind. He preaches a philosophy of self-improvement and self-reliance. He removes a disturbing picture of the bloody, flagellated Christ from the boy's room, replacing it with the more benign picture of a horse, thus beginning the boy's equine fixation. There are moments when Mrs. Strang blames her husband for his godlessness, but she has come to believe that her son's horrific actions are a part of something that is uniquely him: something that can't be blamed on anyone or anything. A pair of students -- Kendall Karcher and Amy Gray -- have undertaken these difficult roles. They avoid any excessive age makeup or any attempts to affect agedness. Instead, they immerse themselves in Shaffer's dialogue, and in doing so, become totally believable as characters more than twice their age.

As Alan Strang, Anders Reynolds remains an enigma. In Reynolds' hands Strang becomes a charming young psychopath who communicates by singing television jingles. He is desperate to actually become a part of the horse: for rider and beast to merge and evolve into one, perfect Godlike being. Reynolds' performance is crisp and uncluttered by the histrionics often associated with the role.

The biggest surprise of this production is David Jilg's performance as Dysart. Jilg is a costume- and set-designer by trade, who occasionally makes forays into the world of directing. As an actor, this marks his McCoy Theatre debut. His is a sometimes astonishing performance, free of all the navel-gazing that can make Shaffer's verbose play drag on and on. Jilg knows that even a man in the throws of professional menopause can still keep his wit about him.

Shaffer's final prognosis is that we live in a world where there is no room for spiritual ecstasy. Religion treats sex as a sinful thing to be avoided at all costs by anyone who is not married and trying to make a baby. And religion itself has been stripped of its more ecstatic elements, leaving Dysart to dream that he is an ancient Greek priest sacrificing children to his bloodthirsty gods. Much emphasis is placed on the commodification of passion and how its absence from our daily lives can become a force for horrible destruction. And it is that very premise that rings untrue, at least for a contemporary American audience. We know too well that spiritual ecstasy can lead to atrocity as surely as its absence. How else does one explain suicide bombings? How does one explain fundamentalist attacks on abortion clinics, and so forth. Also, we now have a greater understanding of the complexities of teenage society, an aspect of Strang's life all but ignored by Shaffer.

Director Cookie Ewing has done a fine job ensuring that this production never gets bogged down in its own psychobabble. But, at times, it's just an unavoidable byproduct of dated theory.

Laura Cannon's set is a handsome thrust. Using the simplest lines she implies the facade of a stable without ever overstating her case or veering off into heavy-handed symbolism. Cannon has always preferred to keep the set simple and to let the lighting do the bulk of the work. Equus is no exception. n

E-mail: davis@memphisflyer.com.

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