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THEATER REVIEW

Time Slows the Horses of 'Equus'

March 25, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

"Equus" seems quintessentially '70s today. Peter Shaffer's play, a sensation in 1974 when it opened on Broadway, tells the story of a boy who one night inexplicably blinds six horses. But the play is really about the boy's court-appointed psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Dave Higgins), who becomes tormented by the idea that if he cures the boy he will rob him of his individuality, his passion. Dysart begins to have terrible dreams about slicing children up with a scalpel; he's afraid to remake the boy into his own image--that of an over-educated everyman whose most intense imaginative pleasure is in reading about ancient Greece. In the character of Dysart, Shaffer captures a fear of the era. With the confusing euphoria of the '60s effectively over, with the new passion for leisure suits and the dry look, what will we all have to live for?

*

The Pasadena Playhouse offers a straightforward production of the play. Jules Aaron directs cleanly, his physical staging modeled on the original John Dexter version, though his actors behave more naturalistically. Some of the audience sit on the stage, in a semi-circle under stone columns that speak of Dysart's beloved Greece and make clear that the audience is judge and jury in this trial that pits passion against normalcy. But the play has become dated and shows its seams--its rhetoric is not as provocative as it once was. Its homoerotic subtext feels flaccid now. What was one decade's flash-point is often another's cliche.

The alienated boy is named Alan Strang, and he is played in a white T-shirt and a young-Brando sneer by Eion Baily. We are introduced to Alan's alienation before we meet him--he will only speak to Dr. Dysart in the voice of television ads--he sings the old "double your pleasure" Doublemint ad for starters. Every decade has its own romantic attachment to mental handicap (hello, Forrest Gump), and "Equus" certainly indicates that Alan should be instantly intriguing, rather than merely irritating.

Alan has been raised by a pedantic and tyrannical father (convincingly played by Mark Capri) who is a strict atheist, and a mother (Amanda Carlin) who is devout and who feeds the boy Bible tales in secret, which makes them all the more lurid.

His first sexual awareness occurs when a strange man gives him a ride on a beautiful horse. When his repressive and restrictive parents catch sight of him riding, they drag him off the horse in horror. This cements his psychosis. He forms his own religion; it centers on a being called Equus that lives inside all horses. He confuses Equus with Jesus Christ and with his own burgeoning sexual impulses. He meets an eager young woman (the buoyant Blake Lindsley) who offers him a job at a stable. Soon enough he is stealing out at night with a horse as his date, working himself up into a sexual frenzy.

Dr. Dysart asks Alan to reenact these scenes, which are staged with economical theatricality. Actors wearing minimal steel heads and platform shoes move and whinny like horses. Then the doctor moves Alan toward a reenactment of the Big Night, which once relived, will of course cure him, for better or for worse. All the while Dysart expresses his doubts, which could be summed like so: It is better to have blinded six horses than never to have lived at all.

Dave Higgins brings a decency to the doctor. His naturalism is appreciated after watching Richard Burton overact in the 1977 movie. Still, he is an improbable everyman, always thinking about his lack of passion. To underline, Shaffer gives him "the lowest sperm count you can find." For the viewer who can discern a large field of possibility between a doctor who hasn't kissed his wife in six years and a boy for whom sex has become an obsession, "Equus" will not be as stunning as it was 23 years ago. Horses grow tamer with age. So it is with "Equus."

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"Equus," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molina Ave., Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends April 27. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Dave Higgins: Martin Dysart

Eion Bailey: Alan Strang

Mark Capri: Frank Strang

Amanda Carlin: Dora Strang

Hope Alexander-Willis: Hesther Salomon

Blake Lindsley: Jill Mason

Brenan Baird: Nugget/Horseman

Frank Ashmore: Harry Dalton

Time Winters: Nurse

Ensemble: Joe Palmiotti, Jared Roylance, Benjamin Shaw, Dennis Wiley

A Pasadena Playhouse production. By Peter Shaffer. Directed by Jules Aaron. Sets Gary Wissmann. Lights Kevin Mahan. Costumes Diana Eden. Sound Aodh Og O Tuama. Production stage manager Elsbeth M. Collins.

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