Saturday, July 16, 2016

Horse attitudes: Casey Ross Productions mounts a searing, level-headed 'Equus'

Alan re-enacts his night rides for the psychiatrist working on his case.
Sir Peter Shaffer just passed into the dramatists' Valhalla. As if to mark his passing, Indianapolis audiences have the opportunity to steel themselves for an enthralling new production of "Equus," a 1973 play that examines questions of identity and divine justice in a totally different manner from Shaffer's other big hit, "Amadeus."

Casey Ross Productions (recently renamed Catalyst Rep)  moved into the second of three weekends with the show Friday night at Grove Haus in Fountain Square. Shaffer built a weighty dramatic edifice on the foundation of a horrific news item involving an English stableboy's blinding of six horses under his care. The play has attracted much attention over its four-decade history.

For this production, the venue's background as a church, an origin still very much evident architecturally, turns the religious fantasy explaining the boy's crime into something especially eerie.

As director, Casey Ross moves the cast around the small playing area with a nice sense of formality that never inhibits the action. The audience sits on three sides. The raised area (the former chancel) is mainly devoted to the usually seated "horse chorus," four actors representing the animals as both icons and equine reality, heads and hoofs designed with totemic sobriety by Dianna Mosedale.

A play as thoroughly examined and thought about as "Equus" doesn't merit much exposition here, and probably not much commentary, either. I can only imagine the reams of interpretive prose it has inspired, none of which I've read. I will focus rather on what I learned from this production.

The professional style of Shaffer's character Dr. Martin Dysart is direct, inquisitive, and rational. Brian G. Hartz embodied it without flaw. When, at length, he nearly breaks down in the course of treating Alan Strang, the teenage stableboy, the cracks in Dysart's facade are sharply defined and made fully believable.

Alan Strang bonds over horses with co-worker Jill Mason.
The blend of provocation, resistance, ferocity, and sly wit in Taylor Cox's portrayal ruled the stage, yet without obscuring Alan's vulnerability and confusion. The latter qualities emerge not only through deep conflicts with his parents, played vividly by Ericka Barker and Doug Powers (though he could have used a little more work with a dialect coach), but also his involvement with Jill Mason, a flirtatious co-worker appealingly played by Sarah McGrath.

In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," William Blake wrote, "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." Dysart's daunting job is to discover the wisdom that might lie deep within Alan's revolting act, especially as it burst out of his evident love for horses and his work with them. Wrath is a consequence of the instruction Alan believes he has received from the animals instruction in a private religion he has concocted, attempting to steer a course between his autocratic father's atheism and his submissive mother's Christian piety.

Not to get too high-flown with the quotes, I am reminded of Groucho Marx's quip: "I'd horsewhip you  — if I had a horse." A picture of Christ flagellated had occupied a hallowed space on the wall of Alan's bedroom before a striking horse image dominated by the creature's eyes replaced it. The sufferings of a Savior whom tradition invites us to know intimately turns out to drive Alan's mania and his violent attempt to drive away sexual guilt. Part of the attraction is sadomasochistic. His clandestine night rides on horses from the stable are summed up in an impressively staged scene that suggests both carnal and spiritual union with them.

Shaffer tosses out plenty of juicy intellectual gobbets for audiences to gnaw on. The pacing of this production gives every piece of red meat its own opportunity to be savored. We hang on every word of dialogue. Every line seems consequential.

I have no idea if the kind of therapy to which Dysart subjects Alan ever works, but on the stage the treatment's emphasis on enacting hidden memories couldn't be more enthralling  — or explicit. This is a courageous cast.

It also includes a simpatico performance by Allison Clark Reddick as a magistrate who has seen to it that Alan receive treatment rather than imprisonment, then nurtures Dysart's fluctuating commitment to his greatest professional challenge. Nan Macy plays the sort of stern, persuasive nurse who increases the likelihood that he will succeed through steady institutional support. As the stable owner, Tony Armstrong solidly represented the workaday world, a decent man mystified by the incomprehensible realm into which his disturbed employee has retreated.

It's a world that this production pries open with both deliberate patience and uncommon energy. For most of human history, until the last two centuries, most people never knew anything that moved faster on land than horses. It's not a matter of romanticizing them that lies behind "Equus." Deeper than romance or utility lies the fusion of flesh and spirit these creatures perpetually represent to us. A half-hearted production of the play would be insufferable; CRP goes all out, giving the symbolism free rein and driving the complex meaning of "Equus" home.

[Production photos: Casey Ross Productions]


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