Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Mason Ross
Through March 3 at the Annex Theater
Early in the second act of Peter Shaffer's Equus, psychologist Martin Dysart confesses some doubts about his treatment of Alan Strang, the British teenager who has blinded six horses with a hoof pick. During their therapy sessions together, Dysart has discovered that Alan had been taking the horses out illicitly to ride naked through the suburban night in a form of religious worship leading to sexual ecstasy. Believing he has offended his equine gods by kissing an actual girl, Alan feels he has no choice but to blot out the horses' censorious stares.
Instead of trying to cleanse the teenager of these passions, Dysart wonders if he should emulate the boy's ardor. "I'm jealous, Hesther," he tells his friend the judge, "jealous of Alan Strang." And she replies, "That's absurd." Most productions of this 1973 play, in the throes of full-blown '60s romanticism, present the judge's response as a symptom of her uptightness, her inability to grasp the superiority of the crazy nonconformist over the well-adjusted conformist. But when you step back a bit and think about it, being jealous of a friendless teenager who goes around blinding horses and howling through nightmares every evening is absurd.
Mason Ross, the rookie director of the Annex Theater's production of Equus, recognizes the absurdity that runs through the play and allows some irreverent humor into the show. This deflates the pomposity that has often bloated previous productions and makes the show less manipulative. We in the audience are now allowed to choose between the jealousy and the absurdity without feeling shoved toward the former. Yes, we can see why Dysart, trapped in a loveless marriage and a burnt-out job, yearns for some true passion. But we can also see that all of Alan's mumbo-jumbo about worshipping horses is just a lonely adolescent's absurd attempt to get off sexually.
Ross' unusual take on the show works-despite the production's miniscule budget and uneven casting-thanks to the terrific performances by the two leads. As Alan, Jacob Budenz gives us the cool hipster and pagan rebel the dialogue often calls for, but the slender, mohawked actor also reveals the scared, sexually stifled little boy behind all the bluster. When he mimes riding his horse, Budenz radiates a high-voltage thrill, but when he's forced out of his fantasy, he either pouts like a small boy or crumples into a fetal ball.
Rjyan Kidwell is even better as Dysart. The tall, tweed-wearing actor frequently pauses and darts his eyes to the side, as if inventing his dialogue on the spur of the moment, while all the time remaining faithful to the script. He embodies the paradoxes of Ross' approach to the show. Kidwell's Dysart can't sit up straight and confident like an adult professional is supposed to; he has too many doubts about the cure he's offering-and just as many doubts about the alternative. So his limbs go all rubbery. He's always slouching in his office chair, rubbing his professorial beard or twisting his fingers into knots. He no longer believes in certainties, so he sees ironies everywhere and finds them amusing.
And why not? Few things in this world are as laughable as human beings trying to camouflage their sexual urges with religious ritual or psychological jargon. The director emphasizes this by having his entire 15-member cast begin the show stark naked. While still in front of us onstage, some of them pull on the workaday clothing of hospital doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors. Others simply stick their heads in puppets made of brown cloth fragments, folded and glued into oversized horse heads, with their naked human bodies still visible below. One actor has the horse's head coming out of his crotch. The result is more humorous than shocking, a reminder that the script's highfalutin philosophy is nothing more than sublimated sexual frustration.
The show has plenty of problems. Alan's parents are such exaggerated caricatures that they are neither believable nor funny. The script's implied flirtation between Dysart and Hesther never surfaces in the exchanges between Kidwell and actress Leeann Monat. Part of the stage is on the floor without a riser, so whenever Alan or his fellow stable worker Jill (Cordelia Snow) kneel or lie down, the poor sight lines obscure much of the action from the rear rows. The set seems thrown together at the last moment-which it probably was. The Annex Theater had planned to present this show at their new space in Station North, but permitting problems forced them to shift it to a loft in the H&H Building downtown.
For all its flaws, however, this Equus boasts a truly original approach by its director, and powerful performances from its two leads. The humor that they add to the show doesn't negate the script's serious side but rather takes the sledgehammer away from those themes. Because we no longer feel we're being pounded by a message, because we feel we can laugh at the characters as well as suffer with them, we're freer to do both.