By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
Phillip J. Berns, as Alan Strang, a 17-year-old boy who’s committed a shocking act, appears onstage with heavy-lidded magenta rings under his eyes. His fragile, slumped, bone-figured shoulders are held in by the noose of his cardigan, whose threads weigh him down. He is defeated.
But then, so is every character in Post5 Theatre‘s new production of Peter Shaffer’s intense 1973 drama Equus. The needling curve of this psychological thriller creates a storytelling arch: Strang is defeated, but not broken. And as in a trial, the members of the audience become witness and judge, looking at their own futures and making a case.
Post5 Theatre, where all of this is going down, has a reputation for taking a simple play and stacking it on its edges, putting an old guard in today’s features. Equus by any standard is well-written, its architecture harking to the Greeks and their chorus. While the roots of Shaffer’s play run deep, the production hinges on the fourth wall and breaking it: Equus is a psychological drama hell-bent for leather.
On a car ride in the early 1970s, Shaffer heard from a close friend the tale of a boy caught blinding horses with a metal spike in a stable in the English countryside. Fascinated, Shaffer set out to find the possible motivations behind this violent crime, from an armchair psychologist’s view.
Horses, even when well-ridden or “tamed,” have a sense of self, a gregarious nature that can lead them off from any idea of having an “owner.” Their long faces and brilliant eyes mimic our own, but they’re bigger and brighter. There’s a moment, looking into a horse’s eyes, when you realize you are less than, smaller, and the realization can be gratifying or horrifying: an unknowable power is there.
Shaffer (and his brother, Anthony Shaffer, who wrote the novel and screenplay The Wicker Man) has a history of looking into a romantic ancient past that some people would like to capture and make their own. There’s an inconclusive tug-of-war between the lurking archetypes and the contemporary narrative, which can’t compete against gods and goddesses of long ago. Maybe, as in Equus and his later play Amadeus, Shaffer shows us that there can’t be a reconciliation of the two: the wild and unconstrained nature that just makes, creates; and its opposite, represented by Salieri in Amadeus and the psychiatrist Martin Drysart in Equus: characters who are walled in, sorrowful, longing to be free, and realizing their captivity too late. Finding the free person placed in their care, they must send him to the grave: freedom, in an orderly and constructed world, is a dangerous idea.
Todd Van Voris brings us down into the depths as Dysart, the psychologist whose task is to cure young Strang. He’s the man, almost in caricature, equipped with all the symbols he needs: suited pants, sweatered argyll, personal force. Dysart explains to us that one of Alan’s parents is an atheist and the other a Christian, and that they’ve had a long tug-of-war over how to raise the boy. In the dead of night, he tells us, both failed Alan: In the end, he was as he wanted to be. Van Voris is the strongest of players in Equus: we never doubt his authority.
Equus isn’t for the light of heart or everyday theatergoer. But in the hotbed for theater that is Portland, Post5 and many of the other smaller companies are going to give us plays that push the envelope. And Post5 has shown us on many occasions it has the potential to push hard and make the audience like it.
The story is simple, and so is the telling: a confused young man acts out violently; we try to decide why. As audience members, we find in moments that we have an affinity for Alan, for his store-bought mother and father, for the girl who tries to manipulate him, but also secure him.
The acting in Post5’s Equus is strong, rivaling that on the stages of the city’s bigger theaters and sometimes even putting them in their place. I mean that in no light sense: I’ve not seen such force or well-rounded acting in many productions recently. Post5 is most known for its direction and interpretation, its shows hinging on offering new meanings, and in this Equus the missing piece is a depth and breadth of direction, which is by the company’s leaders, Cassandra and Ty Boice, who are leaving at the end of the season. Every person acted out his or her character with focus, but at evening’s end the tension, the crux of the play, wasn’t there. Equus needs to come off the stage and help the audience make sense of its violence on a personal level. And despite some fine acting, that center of the play was missing. The point of Equus, the psychological conversation between cast and audience, did not happen.
We wait for confrontation and transference, for that moment when we make a choice: Alan, the guilty, or Dysart, the confessor? In the end, what we get is not enough. Post5, a company well-known for pushing plays into controversial territory, did not challenge a complex text that has similar aims.
Equus continues at Post5 through November 15. Ticket and schedule information here.