Sunday, November 23, 2008

Theater Review: "Equus"

I went recently with friends to New York City to see Equus, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths. Ok, first of all: yes, Harry Potter got fully nude. So did the actress in the scene with him. The nudity is wholly appropriate to the nature of the scene; attempts to clothe the actors would, I think, have seemed more contrived than actual nudity. Also, this review will be totally spoilery, if you can be spoilery over a 30-year old play. So, if you plan to see it and want to know NOTHING, um. Sorry? Go here instead.

So, I read Equus in high school and I know I liked it very much. I didn't remember much about it, except the horse-blinding part but I really don't think I understood most of it. Most of the religious and sexual imagery went riiiight over my head. HA!

Daniel Radcliffe plays Alan Strang, a 17-year old boy remanded to a psychiatric hospital after inexplicably blinding six horses. His psychiatrist, Martin Dysart is overwhelmed by his caseload already and reluctant to take on such an extreme case, but of course, he does. Dysart has been a child psychiatrist for decades and it's taking its toll on him.

Alan Strang is a tormented boy, full of secrets that's he's dying to tell, but doesn't know how. Radcliffe plays him with rage and fear and a kind of coiled physical intensity. Alan very much lives in his body, it's a very physical performance with Radcliffe constantly flinging himself about, jumping on things, etc. He's full of shame and guilt but you get the impression that his guilt is not precisely centered on his acts of violence toward the horses. You see, Alan has developed an erotic and religious fixation on horses. The play is told in numerous flashbacks to Strang's childhood where his fixation began. We meet his shocked, baffled parents: the frail, religious Dora and the blustery Frank and see that they are possibly the worst parents that a boy like Alan could have had. They weren't abusive or neglectful, but they unknowingly fostered his obsessions. While Alan is clearly NOTHING like Harry Potter and bravo to Radcliffe for making such a clear delineation, the audience is ready to follow Radcliffe's Alan and sympathize with his pain. And that's no small feat, on behalf of the playwright, director AND actor. I mean, the kid mutilated animals. That's appalling. But still, we feel for Alan.

Griffiths does a lovely job with the role of Dysart, a man who knows how to do his very difficult job easily and isn't impressed by it. You get the impression he could do psychotherapy in his sleep. He's full of weary discontent that he masks with sarcastic jibes and he admittedly envies Alan's passions, misdirected and painful as they are.

AND THE HORSES. OH MY GOD. THE HORSES. Six male actors, wearing these huge metal skeletal horse masks and hoof-like heels loom constantly in the background. They move in a stylized horse-like manner. It's...unsettling. I've always found horses to be a bit creepy and not a little intimidating and the way in which these horses are portrayed highlights every one of those features. The main horse, the one that Alan is most fixated upon, Nugget, is played by Lorenzo Pisoni (who is HOT, by the way) who does a stellar job. And he also must have quite the strong shoulders, seeing as Radcliffe hops right up onto them several times.

It's a very disturbing, upsetting play. If you're looking for a light, theatrical romp? Um, no. Go see The Drowsy Chaperone. My theatrical companions and I watched most of it leaning forward in our seats, tense and anxious. I have a few small complaints about the play itself, one being the long, stagey, theater-driven monologues that Griffiths is called upon to deliver. He handles them well, but they do drone a bit. My other complaint is minor because I think other areas of the play make up for it: its dated view of psychiatry. It takes the more hippieish, psychiatry-crushes-the-spirit-of-individuality-blah view. And Dysart himself wonders constantly if making Alan "normal" is really in his best interest and if the obvious trust that Alan has in him is misplaced. Eh, it was written the the 70s, what do you expect? Isn't that the same era where they closed most of the psychiatric hospitals and let the seriously mentally ill out into the streets so they could be free and homeless? But how many of Dysart's doubts are a reflection of his own discontent? Of his own envy of Alan's fervent passion? To me, he seemed an unreliable narrator, too caught up in his own regrets to really be able to see clearly.

Also, the homoerotic subtext is probably MUCH more evident to a modern audience than to a 70s audience, which gives it a different texture. I think Equus has held up remarkably well, aided by a great cast and remarkable staging. The set, sounds and lighting are so striking and unsettling. It's one of those plays where it's hard to decide where to look because there's so much to see. During the the climactic last 20 minutes, you could have heard a pin drop in the entire theater. By the end, my hands were shaking because it was so freaky and tense. It's very, very good.

Some amusing, miscellaneous things that happened at the show:
  • Hey, girls sitting a few rows ahead of us? If you're going to try and take a contraband photograph, despite the NUMEROUS warning not to take any pictures, at all, EVER? TURN THE FUCKING FLASH OFF. HA. That usher swung over and yoinked your camera in about 2.5 seconds. And it was awesome.
  • The cast did this thing at the end where they were collecting money for a charity. At one point, they auctioned off a pair of Daniel Radcliffe's pants. We watched in delighted horror as the pants finally went for $950. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?! AND WHY DO THEY HAVE SO MUCH MONEY TO SPEND ON HARRY POTTER'S PANTS?!
  • Driving in New York City is hilarious. That's all that needs to be said about that.
  • I got home and...Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was on. I watched it. I'm going to hell.

1 comment:

Dr. Fabulous said...

LOL great review!!