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A horse is a horse, of course: (l-r) Slezak and Harrison in Equus.

Gods and Monsters
By Ralph Hammann

Equus

By Peter Shaffer, Directed by Scott Schwartz

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 23

In the great tragedies, a di vided hero struggles against himself. In the greatest, he also struggles against and even attacks his god or gods. Such is the case with the works of the extravagantly gifted Peter Shaffer, who has spit in Godís direction more than once and whose protagonists often get spit at in return (for their hubris), and roasted in the flames of their own passions.

While not a tragedy in the strictly classical sense, Equus unfolds with the gathering force of the greatest. Shaffer creates tragic heroes from a society that has reduced the gods to the status of plastic figures attended by routinely mumbled religious cant and seasonal store sales. In Equus, Shaffer pictures a disconnected society that lacks awe and prizes homogeneity and normalcy.

The protagonists in this frequently thrilling and disturbing play are Alan Strang, a tormented young man who has blinded six horses, and Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist who can return Alan to normalcy and ease his painóbut at an expense to patient and doctor alike. Through a series of flashbacks driven by Dysartís well-crafted questions, Alanís past influences are revealed: a religiously zealous mother, a strict atheistic father who attends pornographic movies, a disastrous attempt at sex with a stable girl, and Nugget, a horse who becomes Alanís god and through whom Alan becomes passionately connected to life.

Much of the playís success depends on Dysart, who, the violent act notwithstanding, envies Alan his passion. While the chief action may seem to be deliverance of Alan from his suffering, it is really Dysartís self-doubt that constitutes the dramatic core. Dysart believes that his metaphoric scalpel cuts two ways: It removes the torment, but it also destroys the parts of a personís individuality that are repugnant to society. Above all, Dysart resents himself for sacrificing a patientís warmly felt gods to societyís coldly prescribed god.

The BTF is fortunate to have Victor Slezak playing Dysart, and it is rewarding to see Slezak in a major role that tests his mettle. As it turns out, Slezak has a spine of titanium, and it is his journey from world-weariness to fierce self-laceration that makes the production riveting. And while I donít want to imply imitation at work, there are times when Slezakís delivery is reminiscent of Richard Burton (who played the role on Broadway and in the film), so richly does Slezak savor his lines.

A strong performance almost emerges from very handsome Randy Harrison, at least what we can see of him. Despite his eventual equine eye-gouging, it is really unnecessary that Alan wear blinders. But with locks of his blond hair constantly obscuring the left side of face, including his eye, that is precisely the effect. Consequently, we are never fully drawn into Alan, and he remains more a cipher than desirable.

Pamela Payton-Wrightís Mrs. Strang strangles some lines, and Roberta Maxwellís magistrate seems embalmed in her suit. However, John Curless is powerful as Mr. Strang, and Tara Franklin is natural, sensual and seductively supple as Alanís would-be lover. She and Harrison endow the playís famous nude scene with a raison díÍtre somewhat lacking on the printed page.

That Shafferís dialogue remains the star of the show and that the action is frequently arresting on Beowulf Borittís threatening set, is sufficient reason to recommend the play.

Unfortunately, there is one god in the theater who can have a corrosive effect on even the mightiest of plays: the director. Scott Schwartzís concept, abetted by Jess Goldsteinís costumes, transforms a play about the universal into the merely specific. Because the six horses are, as is customary, played by athletic young men costumed in abstractions of horse features, a homoerotic or homosexual subtext is often implied. However, implication is different from specification. Shafferís critique of normalcy may carry an implicit defense of homosexuality, however, the play is about something larger than sexual preference. But with Schwartzís strapping horsemen garbed in black leather straps adorned with studs and rivets, a homosexual S&M dungeon is blatantly referenced, with Alan kneeling in submission to a hooded master rather than an abstracted god. The image is a kick for a bit, but it soon resolves itself into silly horseplay.


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