|Skye McLaren Walton and Lydia Ellis-Curry. Picture by Alicia Turvin|
By Tina Arth
Twilight Theater Company is kicking off its 2019 season, “In the Buff,” with Equus, playwright Peter Shaffer’s powerful and evocative exploration of the conflict between fierce passion and societal expectations of a “normal” life. The script, themes, and essential nudity make it an especially challenging play to stage in a community theater setting, but veteran director Tobias Anderson and his cast surprised me with the fluidity and accessibility of the production.
The story, condensed: child psychiatrist Martin Dysart is suffering from a psychic malaise, in the throes of what he calls “career menopause.” At a particularly low moment, court magistrate Hester Salomon asks him to take on the inexplicable and horrible case of Alan Strang, a boy who has blinded six horses by stabbing their eyes with a hoof pick. He grudgingly agrees, and slowly breaks through the boy’s defenses while the boy simultaneously breaks down Dysart’s. As Dysart begins to understand Alan’s bizarre motivation, he finds himself drawn to the emotional vibrancy of the boy’s erotically complex religious devotion, fascinated and even a bit envious of the intensity with which Alan experiences his obsessions. By shifting frequently from the present to a series of flashbacks involving Alan’s parents, his adolescent experience with horses, and his one sexual experience with a girl, the audience share’s Dysart’s enlightenment and develops some empathy, if not sympathy, for the disturbed boy as well as the troubled therapist who is reluctant to psychologically neuter his patient in pursuit of a cure.
Three standout actors move Equus, which could otherwise be a bit dry and pretentious, into the “don’t miss” category. First by a mile is Skye McLaren Walton, who commits to the role of Alan with an unforgettable, burning intensity that draws us in and commands our attention whenever he takes center stage. Lydia Ellis-Curry, as Alan’s quasi-girlfriend Jill Mason, is thoroughly engaging throughout – her eyes sparkle and her ponytail swings with good-natured mischief as she playfully introduces Alan to her equine world, and she creates an image of healthy human exuberance in stark contrast to Alan, Dysart, and Alan’s painfully dysfunctional parents, Dora and Frank Strang. In the climactic scene, Ellis-Curry clearly demonstrates the difference between “naked’ and “nude” in the completely natural, graceful absence of self consciousness, or even overt eroticism. The third, and strangest, compelling performance is given by Jeff Giberson, who delivers a silently powerful presence as Nugget/Equus, the horse who is the center of Alan’s psychosexual obsession. With little more than his regal stature, an eerie mask, and the occasional stamp of a hoof, Giberson shows the audience the majestic, godlike beast as seen through Alan’s eyes.
Greg Prosser and Rebecca Morse are self-righteously annoying – exactly what they need to be as Alan’s rigidly screwed up parents, and Christopher Massey’s dry, sometimes pedantic performance as Dysart clearly illustrates the absence of passion in his life, while offering occasional glimpses of the man he would like to be. A small point, but worth noting – Christy Quinn (as one of the horses) is definitely the best prancer in the tiny herd.
Jim Butterfield’s simple barn of a set, when combined with Robin Pair’s intricate lighting design, allows the audience to follow the moves between hospital, home, and barn with no set changes beyond a couple of constantly moving benches, and seating all secondary characters (including horses) along the sides of the stage when they are superfluous enhances the surreal feel of the production.
I cannot, in all honesty, say that Equus is an “enjoyable” show, at least in the usual sense of the word. However, it does a fine job of illuminating some key facets human condition, with special attention to issues surrounding the treatment of mental illness, and if offers some truly memorable performances – I am definitely glad I went. Due to mature themes and language, violent imagery, and nudity, it is clearly appropriate for mature audiences only.
Twilight Theater Company’s Equus is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through February 10, with performances at 8 P.M. on Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday. There is also a performance at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, February 8.