by Rew David Greer · December 15, 2013
Playwrights on New Plays #24: Rew David Greer looks at Equus playing at Gallery Players
I wanted to like Equus. No. I wanted to love it. Peter Shaffer’s brilliant play about a mentally disturbed teen and his self-doubting psychiatrist is one of my favorite shows. It can be a moving, frightening, exhilarating, and even religious experience. Unfortunately the Gallery Player’s production was flat.
Being from Park Slope (born and raised) I have attended numerous shows at the Gallery Players over the past three decades and have come to expect from them a high level of quality and professionalism, uncommon of a community theatre. From Man of La Mancha to Sleuth to Grand Hotel to their numerous Shakespearean productions, the Gallery Players always bring legitimacy to theatre in Brooklyn. This is why I was so disappointed with their current show Equus.
Equus follows a British psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, who is at a crossroad in his life. He has been successful in treating mentally disturbed children throughout his career, but when he is called on to treat Alan Strang, a teenager who inexplicably blinded five horses, the doctor finds himself confronted by his patient to examine his own problems.
Throughout both acts, the two tango in the psychiatrist’s office. Dysart deftly uses every trick of his trade and Alan resists every step of the way. When it becomes apparent that Alan will not open up without a fight, Dysart goes to his family for answers. He learns from his parents that Alan has been obsessed with horses from an early age. He also discovers Alan’s home life was divided by his extremely religious mother and his adamantly atheist father. His parent’s views of sex differ greatly and their deep influence over their son leads him to inventing a new religion that worships horses to sadomasochistic extremes. So when the local town beauty Jill and Alan nearly have sex in a horse stable, embarrassment and guilt leads the boy to drastic measures to silence his accusing god.
Peter Shaffer is an actor’s playwright. He writes lengthy scenes with poetic and ingenious dialogue. His characters are written with such nuance and expertise that they are palpable even on the page. The entire play’s construction hinges on the cast giving themselves over to their characters, being in the moment, and letting the playwright do heavy lifting. While the ensemble of horsemen have excellent command of their small, but vital roles, the rest of the cast either shies away and is overpowered by the material or is not given a chance to shine. The lack of chemistry and the ultimate catharsis embedded in the play is therefore missed. In its final moments we don’t find a man who rediscovers his own passion through his patient’s. We merely have a recitation of a theatre classic.
Volume and speed were the two overwhelming elements of the evening. When a character was feeling an emotion, the actor yelled. When monologues and scene were lengthy, they unfolded so quickly, that I was constantly playing catch up. Director Mark Gallagher would have served the text better if he gave his actors permission to let significant moments take as much time as they need so they could sink in.
The sign of a bad psychologist (and actor) is one who doesn’t listen. Alfred Gingold (Dysart) plows through his dialogue, continually interrupts his fellow actors, and lacks emotional depth or believability because of it. Alan is a meaty role for a fearless actor, but Dean Thomas stoops through the evening, shouting nearly every line of dialogue and indicating each emotion. These are roles of a life time and I found no connection or likeability from either actor.
The leading women of the show, who had the arduous task of sharing scenes with their respective leading men, turned in the most believable performances of the evening. Victoria Bundonis, who plays Hesther Saloman, a court magistrate, was solid as Dysart’s friend and colleague. Adelind Horan as Jill (Alan’s romantic interest) was also another bright spot of the evening. She owned the role as best she could, but when all you get from your acting partner is YELLING it’s hard to believably react. Like her character, Horan reaches for connection and when completely denied is left humiliated.
What could and should have been a moving and religious experience was instead lackluster and forgettable. Equus is a layered work of art and this production skims over every emotional depth and complexity. The production was lightning quick, glazing over important moments and ultimately lacked any weight. I found myself detaching from the actors in order to enjoy the script. I will continue to support and attend shows at the Gallery Players as their work is almost always wonderful. Equus was not.