REFLECTIONS ON EQUUS • AT MUNCIE CIVIC
I'd heard about Equus only from the notoriety Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) received for appearing naked on stage in the revival of the 1970s psycho-thriller drama. I'd not seen Peter Shaffer's play (nor the movie version starring Richard Burton) until Marty Grubbs and the Muncie Civic Theatre cast brought it to life. The show runs through Sunday, 11 April.
In the opening scene a rumpled aging psychiatrist (ably played by Barry McMullen) talks directly to the audience—and to himself. He thinks a lot about the horses, he says. I get the notion he almost identifies with them. Strange way to begin. By the final scene I understand.
Grubbs transposes the setting of the play to Muncie or whichever area small town you are from. Patched-in references to the Hoosier landscape seem forced, while other lines of the play referring to particularly British aspects are left untouched. Yet Grubbs makes the point: the unthinkable could, can and does happen here. Right here. The play centers around a crime of passion: how might an ordinary kid of 17 from a "normal" family from a "normal" city—Muncie, Indiana, say–come to blind six horses? What could bring him to such an act? What implications do his actions hold for the rest of us?
The meaning for psychiatrist Martin Dysart becomes clear. His client has experienced in his young life a passionate intensity that makes what the good doctor has settled for look like an empty husk, an unrealized dream, a sell-out to the demands of profession and society.
And the therapist is asked to cure the patient, to remake him into his own dull, lifeless mold. He begins to doubt himself and his calling.
Teenager Alan Strang (Taylor Anspaugh) has blinded six horses. That much is clear. The mystery is why. The play's structure parcels out this information a little at a time, keeps the audience wondering, wanting more.
Anspaugh's Alan is brooding and recalcitrant, believable in his evasive answers and adolescent scorn of authority. He gives a convincing display of the deeper currents running below the surface. I watch his hands (or are they hooves?—he tries his most to be human when he spreads his fingers–) clench and unclench, the startle movements he makes, the way his mouth works, almost as if there were a horse's bit between his jaws.
McMullen's Dysart paints the psychiatrist as tired, very tired, yet committed to the boy, and awake enough to voice the questions that come up for himself. He alternates between loud and soft, focused and weary. He confesses to his magistrate friend (and perhaps would-be paramour) Hester (an engaging Rita Wessell) the lack of passion in his life, yet his involvement with and commitment to Alan's treatment belie his words.
Alan works weekends at a riding stable. Under the push-pull of his very religious mother (Kelly Myers) and religiously irreligious father (Scott McFadden), Alan has devised his own rituals of worship that involve the horses he adores. He must deal with his sublimated sexual desires and fumbling attraction to an older, more experienced female coworker, played by Tonya Kunkel. She shows the girl as warm and tenderhearted.
The psychiatrist Dysart is torn: can he heal his patient? What will be lost if he does? He brings the audience right into the story, asks them to ponder the questions, as well.
Black. The stepped-back set is black, blue and gray, echoing the dark cave of the psyche Dysart warns us we will peer into, the layers through which we must descend. The few pieces of furniture (a desk, a couch, a bed) seem somehow out of place, spots of the familiar in a landscape of dreams.
The tightly written script keeps me enthralled, alternately repulsed and thrilled. It asks me to think.
The play includes nudity—kudos to Grubbs and the Civic for not shying away from play for this reason—and it serves the plot in making a dramatic psychological point. The characters bare themselves on many levels and take the attendant risks. Their courage moves both the story and members of the audience.
Still, Muncie is not the easiest town to get naked in, literally or metaphorically.
Most days I can easily meet the overly devout Christian mother on Walnut Street; the repressive father who wants nothing to do with God-talk may be sauntering along High Street right now. And the troubled Alan Strang—the play asks me to look inside and see if he's not within me. So too, to look for the weary sell-out, the one who has settled for less than what might have been.
Is there yet hope for healing of these disparate characters within me? What might such healing look like? What do I give up in the way of spiritual energy in order to fit in, to be accepted and acceptable?
As I was born and bred in the Midwest the play sounds several themes with special resonance for me: the role of religion, of belief in a divine spy cam that sees all, of passion, of sublimated sexual desire, sexual naiveté, what and how therapists work and what they claim to heal, the power of secrets, the importance placed on fitting in and appearing normal. Too, there's something about the connection between my regard for chickens and Alan Strang's love for horses. Animals can serve as teachers, companions and open a doorway to that which is beyond our ken.
In some ways I identify with each of the characters: the disturbed passionate teen, the doubting healer, the bewildered parents with secrets of their own, the winsome girl, the compassionate upholder of law and order, the blustering stable owner (Jeff Rapkin), the tough-as-nails nurse (Debby Girtman), the horses (Drew Eberhard, Nick Gilmore, Brad Root).
The horses. Perhaps it is the horses I most closely identify with in the end. On stage they are represented by bare-chested actors wearing huge skeletal metal masks in the form of horses' heads, platform footwear ending in horseshoes. Eberhard's Nugget makes a very sensuous equine companion (would that the erotic connection between Alan and Nugget were explored visually—what we see as the lights come up on the opening scene looks very stand-offish; it doesn't carry the charge one might expect from the story). In the play the horses are a source of primal mystery, stern lessons, controlled power, divine love, selfless service, and ultimately, senseless sacrifice. Who looks deeply into the horse's eyes may be looking into the human heart, as well. Equus invites the audience to do just this.
Muncie Civic Theatre
April 2-3 & 8-11