Just like with astronauts and Power Rangers, an obsession with horses is an inevitable phase that I know you went through at some point in your life. You watched “Black Beauty” or “The Horse Whisperer,” or you wanted to be a cowboy/girl or an Olympic equestrian rider. Or an Indian. Or a horse, for that matter. But, like most phases of this sort, it died by the time you were about thirteen. You watched as a horse turned former “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve into the new Stephen Hawking and suddenly horses weren’t so cool anymore.
But then there are those like Alan Strang, a scrawny and trembling seventeen-year-old who takes a slightly more proactive approach to ending his equine infatuations — gouging out the eyes of six horses with a metal spike, to be exact.
And so it is with this weekend’s Off-Broadway Theater production of “Equus,” a play by Peter Shaffer, which was most recently made famous again by the nude appearance of a certain boy wizard who will here remain unnamed because that joke would be too easy. Directed by Chris Young ’09, the play tells the story of psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by Benjamin Miller ’10) who reluctantly takes the case of Alan Strang (Gabriel Bloomfield ’11), the boy whose disturbing worship of and sexual attraction to horses has led him to near-insanity. The circumstances leading up to the explosive event are explored through several psychiatry sessions, reaching further and further back into not only the boy’s psyche, but into Dr. Dysart’s life and mind as well.
Tired as the plot may sound, this production isn’t boring — well, not consistently boring at least, if only by virtue of its incredible and periodic shock factors: blah, blah, monologue, blah, wait, is he … is he having sex with that poor horse? End of Act 1. More blah, psychoanalytic revelation, blah, blah, OH MY GOD that boy and girl are ACTUALLY NAKED ON TOP OF EACH OTHER!
The uninspired acting can sometimes make the characters seem flat. Some actors’ persistently monotonous tones of voice and body language become tedious and tiresome (Ella Dershowitz ’12 as Hesther Salomon in particular), and I am still unsure as to whether I was supposed to be perpetually giggling during the ostensibly serious scene with Alan’s geeky and nasally mother, Dora Strang (Elissa Dunn ’09).
But the performances of Bloomfield, Miller and, in particular, Jason Perlman ’11 (as Frank Strang) are consistently convincing enough to overshadow the efforts of some of their fellow cast members. Perlman molds himself perfectly to the role of a strict but guilty British father, and Bloomfield, if only through sheer force of volume and pained facial expressions, successfully frightens the audience with the intensity of his portrayal of the tormented Alan.
Though the show may not be suited to the queasy or prudish (full-frontal, backside, under- and on-top nudity and feigned sex are part of the package), nor to those who have not had a full night’s rest (dozing off at some points is a very real possibility), it is, overall, a worthwhile play. Whether this is simply because the power of the original script shines through despite the sometimes weak acting remains unclear.
“Equus” runs at the Off-Broadway Theater tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.