at Pilsen East Center for the Arts

“A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave,” Martin Dysart remarks in the course of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 Equus. The world’s randomness is the backdrop against which Shaffer sets his exploration of the search for order. And the forging of a personal religion, with all the pantheistic glory and terror of that process, is at the heart of this Interplay production. A documentary would merely have traced the circumstances leading a shy, disturbed teenager to horribly mutilate several helpless animals, for which aberrations he’s sent to Dr. Dysart, a child psychologist. A Freudian study of sexual-initiation trauma would have included the details of the boy’s double shock just before he commits his atrocities: the discovery of his father’s fallibility and his own sexual initiation at the hands of a local Lilith. And after all, thousands of young girls go through a horse-crazy stage only to transfer that affection later to their own species. It’s not implausible that the rejection of animal friends for human in a male child undergoing a similar rite of passage would be more extreme–even to the point of gruesome violence, for as Dysart tells us, “The extremity is the whole point.” But Shaffer’s not interested in facile or everyday explanations.

As Dysart probes deeper and deeper into Alan Strang’s psyche, he gradually uncovers a bizarre creed that twists together Christian theology, gleaned from religious iconography, totemic myths from childhood stories, and a highly personal interpretation of common things–in this instance horses, which have often been likened to divinities. This tangle of beliefs produces a ritual cognizant of life and death, suffering and transcendence–indeed, the entire theoleptic union of Man and God. (“Sex is not just a biological matter, but spiritual as well,” Strang’s mother had told him, little realizing the dimensions her offspring would give this precept.)

“What am I doing here?” puzzles Dysart, articulating the question for himself as well as his patient. “These questions are fundamental–yet they have no place in a consulting room.” For the hard truth is that society has little tolerance for spirituality, which has a way of upsetting the status quo. Strang’s dominating father is a printer, but he takes no pride in serving words (though he does nag his son for not reading more and forbids him to watch television). Strang’s more indulgent but equally controlling mother has her family traditions of church and trail riding, both kept well within respectable bounds. But neither a cardboard religion nor a cardboard intellectuality, however intensely embraced, can confer order on the universe. This Dysart realizes, and he’s honest enough to admit his own hypocrisy: “I look at pictures of centaurs, while outside my window, this boy is trying to become one.” He regrets having to take away Strang’s pain and, with it, his passion.

Interplay’s production does ample justice to Shaffer’s complicated script. (Those still carrying starry memories of the 1974 New York production may find this one wanting–nothing bestows perfection like nostalgia–but for others this production should do quite well.) Certainly the architecture of this space, which was once a church–its gothic pointed arches and brightly decorated ceiling beams–gives the severely symmetrical platform that is the focal point of the action the feel of a primitive ritual clearing. The horses, too, project an eerie grandeur, distinctively equine even though the actors’ human physiques are in plain view at all times: their costumes are restricted to stylized cothurni and headdresses. (I would have liked more movement from this chorus, however–horses do run, rear, and whinny from time to time–but the small stage area may have prevented that.)

For the play to carry a valid and compelling argument, in Shaffer’s mind, the audience must be convinced of Strang’s faith. If we cannot believe in his horse-god, we will never understand what all Dysart’s fuss is about. Fortunately Brent Ries, a student at Roosevelt University, is perfectly cast in this delicate role, conveying with riveting sensitivity the anguish and ecstasy of a mortal touched by holy fire and left badly damaged. Interplay artistic director David Perkovich plays Dysart and directs–and perhaps as a result of trying to do both, he lacks some of the gravity needed to guide us through Shaffer’s philosophical labyrinth. Like Strang, we must trust him. With the assistance of Lesley Delmenico’s comfortably earthbound judge, however, Perkovich manages to keep his character on a steady footing. Larry Dyekman’s Frank Strang blusters and bullies in the manner characteristic of father-tyrants throughout history, and Susan Philpot is a sympathetic if slightly wooden mother. Lisa Davidson, though she tends toward the valley girl, brings an ingenuous sweetness to the role of Strang’s primeval temptress.

In an interview Shaffer once commented–not without irony–that “in England the play was found shocking because it seemed cruel to horses, [but] in America because it seemed cruel to psychiatrists.” Every culture, every age, perhaps every individual develops its own icons, and who can judge whether a horse is any less a messenger of the gods than a parent or a doctor or a president? The question of who is the true god and how that god is to be served is one that will continue to be debated so long as the demands of an increasingly secular society conflict with the spiritual hunger of its citizens. Equus offers no answers, but it opens the way for discussion–as good a first step as any in the eternal search for meaning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.