everybody’s a critic.(c) BK
Harrison gallops well
published July 17, 2005
By Jeffrey Borak

EQUUS. A play in two acts by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Scott Schwartz; scenic designer, Beowulf Boritt; lighting designer, Kevin Adams; costume designer, Jess Goldstein; sound designer, Ray Schilke; movement consultant, Gus Solomons Jr. Through July 23. Eves.: Mon.-Sat. 8. Mats.: Thu., Sat. 2. Berkshire Theatre Festival, Main Stage, Route 102 (Main Street East), Stockbridge. 298-5576; (866) 811-4111 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (866) 811-4111 end_of_the_skype_highlighting. 2 hours 45 minutes

Frank Strang.........................John Curless
Jill Mason.............................Tara Franklin

Alan Strang........................Randy Harrison

Heather Solomon.............Roberta Maxwell

Nurse......................................Jill Michael

Dora Strang..............Pamela Payton-Wright

Dr. Martin Dysart...................Victor Slezak

Harry Dalton...........................Don Sparks

Horseman/Nugget.................Steve Wilson

Horses/Chorus: Richie duPont, Joe Jung, Brad Kilgore, Ryan O'Shaughnessey, Brian Sell

STOCKBRIDGE -- Martin Dysart, the central figure in Peter Shaffer's haunting drama "Equus" -- which is being given a less-than-haunting production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival -- is in trouble.
The fortysomething child psychiatrist is going through a midlife crisis that he is being made to confront head-on.

Dysart has lost touch with his passion. It's as if he views life, his life, from a clinical distance. He spends what leisure time he has at home leafing through books on ancient Greek history, particularly the gods. He spends three weeks a year in Greece on vacations whose well-ordered structure allow Dysart to indulge his interest from a civilized separation.

But what Dysart (Victor Slezak) has managed to bury in an increasing workload hits him square on when he takes on the case of a troubled 17-year-old, Alan Strang (Randy Harrison), who, using a metal spike, has blinded six horses in the stable where he works.

Strang is passion unplugged. He regards the horses in the stable -- one in particular, Nugget, whom he rides, naked, in the dead of night through the fields around the stable -- with religious awe and fear. That worship, Dysart says at one point to a friend, Heather Salomon (Roberta Maxwell), a magistrate who has brought Dysart this case, is Strang's core. "He's a modern citizen for whom society doesn't exist," Strang tells Heather. "He lives one hour every three weeks, howling in a mist.

And after the service kneels to a slave who stands over him obviously and unthrowably his master. Many men have less vital with their wives.

"That boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life. ... That's what his stare has been saying to me all this time -- 'At least I galloped. When did you?' I'm jealous, Heather, jealous of Alan Strang."

This issue of the cost of being civilized -- the risk of losing one's passion as the price of the civility society imposes upon us -- is a common theme in Shaffer's writing. It does, however, find its most eloquent and theatrical expression in "Equus." How ironic, then, that in mounting this play at BTF director Scott Schwartz has drained "Equus" of much of its primal theatricality.

From a technical standpoint, this is a terribly busy production -- distractingly so -- with its shifts of scenic elements. Moreover, the rhythm is erratic. Scenes do not flow naturally or easily into one another.

Slezak's Dysart also is somewhat problematic. Slezak has yet to find the balance between Dysart's clinical dispassion on the one hand and the roiling unease on the other. Slezak too often buries Dysart in intonations that smack of grand classical tragedy excess.

With the exception of a notably unsteady Pamela Payton-Wright as Strang's mother, the supporting cast is strong, especially John Curless as Strang's working-class father and Tara Franklin as a young woman whose attraction to Strang proves fateful. And there is Harrison's blazing, go-for-broke performance as the troubled Strang, a youth who is both captivatingly naive and, at the same time, out there at the extreme.

In finding an extreme the production as a whole misses, Harrison clearly gallops.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at or 496-6212.

"...reaches such stunning, visceral, and astounding heights..."

July 15, 2005 performance, reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
Equus at Berkshire Theatre Festival

Victor Slezak, Ryan O'Shaughnessy, Joe Jung,
Randy Harrison and Steve Wilson
Photos by Kevin Sprague

Rarely in our contemporary theatre do we have the opportunity to experience catharsis, that purging of the emotions by pity and fear that leads to exaltation. Good plays, well done, are the staple willingly applauded by Berkshire audiences of summer theatre

But the Berkshire Theatre Festival's production of Peter Shaffer's Equus reaches such stunning, visceral, and astounding heights that it leaves one knowing to have lived through an emotional experience one will always remember with a sort of awe.

Knowing the play well, having seen it performed over the years and having read it with students in my college classroom, I brought my admiration for it to the theatre, along with visualizing a staging along the lines described meticulously by Shafer in his text as to be played out on a bare square stage, surrounded by actors and audience, while a battery of lights shone down on a clinical operation.

What I experience instead was a play in which the six towering white pillars, set at first symmetrically against a black cyclorama were to whirl in and out in countless configurations, realistic and clinical, domestic and tasteless, surreal and limitless, and in the case of the stabled horses, beautiful and poignant.

This setting, designed by Beowulf Boritt, bathed in the lighting of Kevin Adams, and washed by the sounds (gongs as well as music) of Ray Schilke provided the area on which the multiple scenes could unfold.

And then there were the horses, Nugget and his five stable-mates, a chorus of dancers who dancing doubled as stage hands, gloriously horses in the great masks they at times wore, whirling as the great strap-like manes streamed behind them. Choreographer Gus Solomons, Jr. had honed the young strong bodies into strength and beauty. He had taken his "horses" to a local stable to observe the horses’ movements so they could evoke those movements as they performed in Jess Goldstein's costumes — ones in which they could become rider as well as horse — real and unreal.

Peter Shafer's Equus at Berkshire Theatre Festival

Ryan O'Shaughnessy, Joe Jung, Steve Wilson,
Randy Harrison, Victor Slezak, Richie DuPont,
Brian Sell and Brad Kilgore

The plot of this play is well known: a psychiatrist is challenged to search for the reasons a seventeen year-old boy would, in one evening, blind six horses. And his search becomes a detective story (as horror-filled as the search of Oedipus) as he gradually moves to revelation, both of the boy's motivation and of his own life, and of the great sin he feels he is committing in "curing" the boy.

The last line in the play is spoken by the psychiatrist, "There is now in my mouth, this sharp pain and it never comes out." He has made the child "normal" and never again will the child equate equus with god, or know passion.

To bring this off at the level of emotion that envelopes the audience, however, demands strong actors and the stage is full of them. Director Scott Schwartz has cast them well and moves them about with expert timing and consummate skill in his use of space and mood.

Randy Harrison as Alan Strang the distraught teen-ager becomes the character from the moment he chants his first singing commercial. He has experienced an ecstasy the doctor has never been capable of. He hides his secret; his domestic, religious, and sexual conflicts as long as he can, even gleefully reversing the roles and interrogating the doctor, but finally, seduced by a fake "truth pill," he is stripped naked to curl up in his bed — a "normal" young boy who will never again know passion. Every moment is beautifully and convincingly played.

As Martin Dysart, Randy’s unwilling psychiatrist, Victor Slezak is heart-wrenching, in self-deprecating monologs and in confrontations with the boy. Unhappily married, bound to a boring wife, unable to feel his life has had any meaning, he envies the child he must "heal" and try to transform into a life as meaningless as his own. His tragedy is as deep as Alan's and as wrenching in its immediacy. He knows he is lost and accepts his loss with a defeated objectivity.

As Dysart's friend, Roberta Maxwell, who refers Alan from her court to Dysart's reluctant care, unwittingly helps defeat him as she mistakenly urges him to relieve the child from his pain. She is compassionate, convincing, energetic and well cast and though never revealing it, probably loves (and understands) the psychiatrist more than his wife ever has.

Alan's mother, played convincingly, defensively, and movingly by Pamela Payton-Wright, has unwittingly brought both religion and horses into Alan's mind. It was she who read to him of horses, especially the biblical ones, and who, when the religious picture of a Christ replete with many wounds was taken from his wall, helped him replace it with the picture of a horse to whom Alan could transfer his god image. She will never understand what she did, but she did all in ignorant love.

His father played by John Curless is brutal, ignorant, and self-defensive. His puritanical wife's bed drives him to slip off to porno movies. His character is an unsympathetic one and he so plays it. He plays a role early in the tragedy when he drags young Alan off the sea-side horse and sets the stage for much that follows. He inhabits his role convincingly.

Tara Franklin moves winningly through her minor roll of Jill, the girl who by introducing Alan to sex will bring on the tragedy. She undresses with self-confidence and moves in her nudity with grace and no embarrassment. She understands, too late, that her open giving of herself under the all-seeing eyes of horses, has toppled Alan's fragile world.

Nugget (Steve Wilson), chief horse and also a horseman, brings his grace and physique to the horseback scenes. It is to him that Alan kneels. He deserves it as actor as well.

Such praise may seem over-effusive; it is written in euphoria. I went to this play expecting to enjoy it and came away humbled by my simple expectations. I thought I knew the play well, but at this production found myself engulfed in it more deeply than seemed possible. I am grateful for the experience. Equus

(Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge, Mass.; 415 seats; $58 top)

A Berkshire Theater Festival presentation of a play in two acts by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Scott Schwartz.

Dr. Martin Dysart - Victor Slezak

Alan Strang - Randy Harrison

Frank Strang - John Curless

Dora Strang - Pamela

Payton-Wright Hesther

Salomon - Roberta Maxwell Harry

Dalton - Don Sparks

Jill Mason - Tara Franklin

Horseman/Nugget - Steve Wilson

Nurse - Jill Michael

Mon., Jul. 18, 2005

To make Peter Shaffer's "Equus" more than an unusual why'd-he-do-it, you have to have a leading character compelling enough to make his belabored middle-age angst forgivable. Unfortunately for this summer production in the Massachusetts Berkshires, the doctor (Victor Slezak) is out, but the patient is very much in, with a strong and sympathetic performance by "Queer as Folk's" Randy Harrison.

Slezak is Dr. Dysart, an overworked and overwrought child psychiatrist at a provincial hospital. He's going through personal and professional menopause when he encounters a patient whose extreme case awakens in him untapped primal passion.

But a pedestrian perf depriving the character of intellectual vigor, humor and drive cripples the play's gait. It also highlights the work's shortcomings. Here the lead character is less a searcher of alternative gods than an academic bore who drones on about the glories of antiquities.

The play lacks the punch it had years ago when John Dexter's stark staging and the shocking story line with its Psychology Today patina (not to mention the nudity and expressionistic depictions of studly actors as horses) first dazzled auds.

Now it's more of a classic Brit mystery with well-timed revelations, connect-the-dots motivation and eyebrow-arching exchanges. (When Dysart tells a colleague that he is thinking about giving his patient a placebo, she responds, "You mean a harmless pill?")

There are still nicely crafted parallels between patient and doctor, their shared dreams and nightmares, their sense of displacement, their search for a purer purpose. Shaffer also none-too-subtly compares the rituals, sacrifices and incantations of Christianity -- including its S&M homoeroticism -- with worshipful believers of a decidedly different mythology. But with such an indulgent and uninteresting guide as Dysart, these revelations are more prosaic than profound

However as Alan Strang, the 17-year-old stable boy who inexplicably blinded six horses with a metal spike, the blond and beatific Harrison takes the production on a glorious ride. He clearly breaks down the adolescent obsession that makes unbridled devotion the most dangerous of drugs.

John Curless makes Alan's working-class father contemptible and sad. Pamela Payton-Wright nicely straddles the conflicts of motherly love and religious zeal. Tara Franklin as the self-possessed Jill, with whom Alan has a disastrous sexual encounter, is sharply drawn.

As the magistrate who implores Dysart to take the boy's case, Roberta Maxwell, who played Jill in the original Broadway production, gives a perf both dignified and warm. Steve Wilson provides egalitarian dash as the horseman on the beach and the equestrian panache as the noble stallion Nugget. (Costumer Jess Goldstein's horse heads are handsome and haunting.)

For this proscenium production (Dexter famously staged it in a wooden _ square), designer Beowulf Boritt crowds the stage with rolling tiled pillars and a wall of hay that takes a tumble at the play's violent climax -- sort of the last straw of dramaturgy. That's followed by a blaze of blinding lights that scorches the aud's retinas and diffuses the last soliloquy of the play. Helmer Scott Schwartz also milks Shaffer's ocular symbolism with overly watchful direction wherein everyone seems to be staring at each other.

Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Ray Schilke; production stage manager, Marjorie Hanneld. Opened, reviewed July 16, 2005. Runs through July 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Date in print: Tue., Jul. 19, 2005, Gotham EQUUS

Main Stage
EQUUS by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Scott Schwartz
July 12-23, 2005

EQUUS is not an easy play to produce. At this point in history, it's almost a relic, a somewhat dated piece of psychological drama forever stuck in its era (the 1970s) partly because of its theme and outlook (a post-Aquarian view of Freudian psychology, freedom, and sexual liberation) and partly because of the 1977 film version starring Richard Burton. The play, or at least scenes from it, have already become cliches of acting classes around the world, and as written, the heavy-handed, expressionist symbolism is antiquated and even a little high-school-ish.

All the more reason to give director Scott Schwartz and his design team credit for a well-rounded, compelling production currently running on the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage. This well-acted, well-executed portrayal avoids some of the pitfalls, such as the play's preachiness, and deals with some of the more problematic technical challenges -- such as the presence onstage of six horses -- with ingenious stagecraft, set design, and choreography.

In fact, there is a lot to praise about this production, including its swift pace (considering it runs nearly three hours with intermission), its sound design (kudos to Ray Schilke for some apt musical choices, especially the Genesis piece at the movie theater), and the acting. As written, EQUUS is something of a melodrama, presenting actors with the great challenge of making grand statements of philosophy seeming like natural speech. The cast of this EQUUS more than meets the challenge, especially Victor Slezak in the unenviable role of Dr. Martin Dysart. At times Slezak seemed to battle with the role, dropping lines and losing his accent, but he came out swinging in the second act and wrestled it, and the audience, to the ground.

Randy Harrison is excellent as Alan Strang, the disturbed teenager who inexplicably blinds six horses. Again, it's a role that's ridden with cliches, but Harrison plays it believably, and handles the challenge of acting the last quarter of the play in flagrante delicto.

The supporting cast, including Pamela Payton-WRight as Alan's prim, religious mother, Tara Franklin, as Alan's would-be girlfriend, Jill, and John Curless, who nearly steals the show in the role of Frank Strang, Alan's tormented, hypocritical father, also deserve kudos.

But mainly, Scott Schwartz deserves the most credit for assembling an intelligent, thoughtful production, one that doesn't shy away from the play's inherent challenges, but rather accepts them for what they are, and looks to reinvent EQUUS for a new age, breathing new life into a play that previously seemed destined for the nostalgia circuit. Not to beat a dead horse, but as Schwartz shows so eloquently and elegantly, there's life in this EQUUS, yet.

A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer

Victor Slezak as Dr. Martin Dysart & Randy Harrison as Alan Strang
(Photo: Kevin Sprague)
It's been thirty years since Equus, Peter Shaffer's psychological detective story about a teenager and his homo-erotic, spiritual relationship with horses galloped away with the Tony for Best Play as well as a Drama Critics Circle Award. The play, while revived occasionally, has not been done as much as some titles in the canon of trailblazing dramas from the final half of the twentieth century. For one thing the steamy mix of a childhood encounter with a galloping horseman, dysfunctional parenting and its effect on a sensitive youth is daunting to stage. The text is talky, with the protagonist-sleuth called on to memorize super-sized monologues during his dual struggle with his own demons and those that drove his 17-year-old patient Alan Strang to bafflingly blind six horses. That struggle clocks in at a Shakespearean length rather than the currently in favor of a 90-minute nonstop play. The chorus of human equidae is difficult to make believable, and in a less than stellar production can too easily seem ludicrous and cause unintended laughter.

All this said, Berkshire Theatre Festival and director Scott Schwartz deserve our thanks for giving us a chance to revisit this now middle-aged play -- or, for those who know only Sidney Lumet's true-to-the original film adaptation starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth, to experience it live. The on stage nudity no longer shocks. Edward Albee's The Goat: Who Is Sylvia, has brought Shaffer's exploration of normalcy via a mythic and erotically charged animal-human relationship full circle. But even with its softened by time edge and some questionable directorial choices, Equus, remains a heady rumination on parenting, psychiatry and passion.

The BTF production is fortunate to have Victor Slezak to take on the demanding role of the play's narrator and main player, Dr.Martin Dysart. Besides being masterfully at ease with the lengthy chunks of dialogue as well as the emotional demands of the role, Slezak makes the most of the text's metaphoric richness (as in his rueful "There is now, in my mouth, this charp chain. And it never comes out" and the dark the humorous lines with which Shaffer punctuates the text (for example, when he ironically deprecates his calling with "one great thing about being in the adjustment business: you're never short of customers"). Randy Harrison, perhaps best known to most people through TV's Queer as Folk, is not as nuanced an actor as Slezak or as adept at Brit-speak, but he's a perfect physical fit for the other key character, Alan Strang.

Though inspired by a news story about a teenager who had for no apparent reason blinded several horses, Equus is strictly a work of imagination. The crime from the news story is what lands young Alan Strang in an English mental hospital. He's been sent there by Hesther Salomon (her name and the role she plays a nice bit of symbolim), the magistrate in charge of the case, in the hopes that her friend, the respected child psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart, can restore his sanity so that he can function as a normal member of society. What makes Alan's deed so unfathomable is that he tended these horses with loving devotion as a weekend stable hand for over a year. Dr. Dysart does manage to unlock the young man's troubled psyche, but something about Alan's spiritual and sexual journey into madness also shines a reflecting light on his own passionless life, which ultimately raises the issue of whether curing Alan will condemn him to a life that can only be lived at a dull, steady pace, never at an emotionally invigorating gallop.

Members of the Equus chorus
(Photo: Kevin Sprague)
Unlike many of today's playwrights who include fairly minimal stage directions in their scripts (perhaps because this suits the current era of director driven theater), Shaffer was very specific in his vision for the play's look, feel and sound. Director Scott Schwartz has opted to depart quite drastically from the original staging concept: a square of wood set on a circle of wood with three benches on which the various members of the cast remain seated and visible throughout. Instead, with the help of set designer Beowulf Boritt, Schwartz has created six tall columns to suggest a horse barn. These columns are moveable and double as walls in the hospital. The upstage wall also changes to fit various scenes. As lit by Kevin Adams, it's all quite dynamic, especially when the stables come alive with the horse figures.

Ultimately, the departure from the playwright's intended simplicity tends to distract from and upstage the drama and diminish the impact of the play's mystic aura and the secondary characters, especially Alan's parents, Dora and Frank Strang -- though I have no complaints about the performances of John Curless as the dominating atheist socialist and Pamela Payton-Wright as the mother whose fanatical religious bent unwittingly lays the foundation for Alan's spiritual confusion. Roberta Maxwell's Hesther (she played Dora in the original production) is somewhat too dispassionate and judge-like as the voice of civility and the sounding board for the increasingly conflicted Dysart.

Tara Franklin is fine in her small but crucial role as the girl who introduces Alan to the stable owner (Don Sparks, in an even smaller but also well-played role) and unwittingly causes the explosion that follows their movie date (that shadowy movie scene is one of play's highlights). The black palette in which Jess Goldstein has dressed and masked the horse chorus smacks a bit of S&M bikers but Richie duPont, Joe Jung, Brad Kilgore, Ryan O'Shaughnesey, Brian Sell are theatrical and plausible; so is Steve Wilson as the God-Horse Nuggett and also the Horseman who gives the toddler Alan a ride at once thrilling and traumatizing.

Even if you end up wishing, as I did, that this were a less busy and showy production, one that trusted Shaffer's words to provide the pyrotechnics, this Equus is well worth seeing, if only for Victor Slezak's bravura performance. A caveat: Now as thirty years ago, this is not for kids or anyone squamish about nudity.

@темы: theatre, Equus, 2005