Primal worship challenges intellectual norms
Theater performances will often seek to provide audiences enlightenment or entertainment, but last week, the School of Drama directly confronted, challenged, and disturbed the audiences who entered the Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater.
The small space with audiences on all four sides of the stage was home to the production of Equus, a controversial play by Peter Shaffer. Laura Gross, a graduate student in the drama school’s directing program, directed the production. She presented this as her graduate thesis, the hallmark of her studies at Carnegie Mellon.
Equus originally premiered in 1973 in the National Theatre at the Old Vic in London. It received a 1975 Tony Award for Best Play, and in 1977 it became a feature-length movie starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth that was nominated for three Oscars. Shaffer went on to write the hit play Amadeus, which became the popular film starring Tom Hulce.
Set in a fictional psychiatric hospital, the play tells the story of Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist played by senior drama major Anderson Davis, who analyzes Alan Strang (junior drama major Jeffrey Omura). Alan has blinded four horses with a metal spike before the play began, and the plot of Equus revolves around the detective-like search for the source of his problems. Ultimately, Dysart finds that Alan idolizes the horses and, to do his job, must destroy the teen’s intense and unnatural passions. Alan’s crime is motivated by an unsettling amalgamation of situations. Is it possible to pinpoint one cause for what he did? Shaffer says no, but one can see how different Alan’s passion is from the boring day-to-day movements of modern society.
Gross, who graduated from Bennington College in Vermont with a degree in theater and psychology, knew she wanted to direct Equus for years. She said that the powerful script and message amazed her. In her words, it “kicked my ass.”
“It’s about the idea of having to destroy the extraordinary to become ordinary. The whole idea broke my heart,” said Gross. “Our lives are primarily ordinary, and when we see the extraordinary, we have to destroy it and make it fit in.”
Equus challenges audience members to re-evaluate their own sense of worship. Dysart wrestles with his patient’s passions and his own bland life, and his moving monologues that describe that inner battle between duty and desire invite his on-lookers to reflect on those struggles within themselves. The play does not characterize Alan’s primal passions as an anathema; in fact, it seeks to redefine the concept of “primal” altogether and juxtapose it with modern worship of brand-name consumerism.
This is the unsettling tension between the rational and the irrational, and Gross’ production explores that tension very well. J. Patrick Adair, a graduate student in scene design, sought to create a theatrical space that encouraged audience members to reflect on themselves. For instance, he suggested the four-sided audience setup to foster that self-consciousness.
“It’s confrontational because of the idea of this boy having this unnatural relationship with a horse and the violence
that comes out of that,” Adair said. “You come ... face-to-face with that in a really small space.... You can’t help but feel uncomfortable at times.”
For the basic layout of the stage, Adair placed rigid, geometric shapes in four corners around a circular stage with hay flowing out of its bottom. The representation of the intersection between the animalistic and the intellectual complemented the action on stage, which Gross staged in order to further elicit audience response to the tension.
Gross led a strong team of actors who propel the sensual rawness of the action on stage. With the character of Alan Strang, Omura used fierce body movements and an impressive array of facial expressions. Spit flew from his mouth as he forcefully confronted other characters, and even if his accent slipped a bit, Omura’s performance of the untamed and brutal young boy who goes from flippantly singing commercial jingles to cowering, naked, in Dysart’s arms was poignantly provocative.
As the representation of intellect’s battle with the primal, the mental thrust and parry of Alan and Dysart in the hospital required a lot of the two actors who had to perform for an audience all around them. Davis has had an immensely successful senior year in the School of Drama, and his performance of the troubled psychiatrist never faltered. With amazing dexterity, Davis rapidly jumped from the role of cunning doctor to the role of bitter husband sick of normalcy.
“There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain — and it never comes out,” Dysart says at one point. Davis delivered these difficult monologues to an audience stunned and disturbed by his anguish, for his attempt to “account for” the archetypal god Equus is a mirror of the world’s attempt to contain passion.
The horses, turned into deities by Alan, carried with them much of the play’s creepiness. The light and sound team signaled the presence of the horses with a remarkable atmosphere of sinister dimness. The actors who played the horses had to go into strength training to wear the hoof-like shoes in performance, and their hard work showed. Gross decided to have the four horses enter from the four entrances to the theatre, and they slowly put on their masks each time they came in. It was a tasteful, hair-raising weirdness.
The play’s rapid shift between times and scenes demanded a well-coordinated ensemble performance with a strong grasp of the dialogue, and Gross and her team decided to use as few props as possible to let the play’s script speak for itself. Three wood pieces were all the actors had to work with, and they thought that was just fine.
“I applaud her for that,” said Michelle Wong, a junior acting major who played Hester, a magistrate. “[The props] are all very appropriate. The script can stand alone, and to put anything in its way is a disservice.” Wong said the actors could relish in Shaffer’s words and allow themselves and the audience to enjoy them.
“I wanted to rip tears out of people,” said Gross. Her production of Equus was a transformative and moving experience that engaged the audience and invited them to consider the ramifications of appropriating the extraordinary and to consider the definition of ordinary.
Why would this production have a place in a university? At Carnegie Mellon, where students hope to be more than ordinary, the primal rarely meets the academic, but maybe Shaffer meant for Equus to challenge that.