Saturday, March 19, 2011

Equus : City Lights Theater Company : A Masterful Rendering of a Modern Classic

British playwright Peter Shaffer frames his 1973 psychodrama as if it’s a clinical examination into the mysteries of abnormal psychology. In reality, it’s the existential rant of a repressed middle-aged man struggling with regret. It explores the notion that the pursuit of a “normal,” rational life denies the existence of an integral part of the human psyche that cannot be ignored. 

The play opens with a quartet of actors, adorned with equine masks, mimicking a horse-like motion as they amble downstage to the rhythm of a pulsating percussion. The choreography is strangely sensual, and it sets an eerily erotic tone that permeates the entire play. Kudos must be given to the moody, affecting sound design of the multi-talented George Psarras.

The spartan set design is embellished with four pillars reminiscent of proscenium columns utilized in classical Greek theatre-a recurring theme. Like a mute Greek chorus, supporting players are seated around a revolving center stage, entering or leaving a scene as their roles dictate. It’s a masterpiece of expressive minimalism. 

We’re introduced to Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist who’s at a major crossroads in his personal and professional life. He’s reluctant to take on another patient, but the bizarre case of Alan Strang piques his waning interest.  Suffice it to say the young man committed an inexplicably brutal act of animal cruelty upon four horses.

Steve Lambert’s pitch-perfect performance captures the essence of an intellectual at odds with his own emotional repression; perhaps brilliant in his chosen profession, but otherwise quite ordinary. He recites his frequent monologues with a credible erudition and poignant urgency. It’s his interplay with the other cast members, however, where he’s most compelling.

It would be an understatement to describe the exchanges between Lambert and the dazzling Sean Gilvary as riveting. Under the guise of therapy, they engage in a complex and agonizingly intense game of cat and mouse. But the stakes go beyond the bounds of an arm's length, doctor-patient relationship. It’s a vicarious bond formed between two lonely individuals desperate to understand and rid themselves of their mutual pain.

Mr. Gilvary possesses a preternatural ability to inhabit the very soul of his character. Like the troubled teen that he portrays, both he and Strang possess a passion for something that is an inseparable part of their personality. As specifically addressed in the story, it’s unknown if it’s environmental or exists on a genetic level.  Either way, it’s our good fortune that, unlike Alan Strang, Sean Gilvary is not ashamed to share it with the rest of us!

The penultimate scene is a visually stunning reenactment of the horrible crime, performed in slow motion awash in a flood of blazing red light. The imagery is indelible, obviously the product of a visionary director (Kit Wilder) and lighting designer (Michael Palumbo) with an exceptional aesthetic sensibility. Bravo! 

Excellent support is provided by all, including Beth Boulay as a young woman whose feminine appeal tempts the sexually confused Strang. She conveys a precious vulnerability and natural poise that appears effortless. Monica Cappuccini plays Dysart’s close friend and the magistrate who originally refers the youthful offender to rescue him from criminal prosecution. Their friendship is sweet and her subtle portrayal evinces a genuine compassion for Dysart that hints at something more. 

Alan’s parents, Dora and Frank, provide clues to their son’s extreme behavior. Evidently each has sublimated their own sexuality in the form of her religious fanaticism and his hidden addiction. Beverly Griffith and Michael J. West exude the deep frustration and guilt that any parent would experience knowing their own shortcomings may have contributed to their child’s unhappiness. 

And honorable mention must go to Michael Bates as a convincing stallion who carries the full weight of Strang’s lustful desire!

Ultimately, we are left with as many questions as answers, but the density of ideas it posits, rich characterizations and meticulous production values make this a must-see. Please hurry to the City Lights Theater in San Jose for a rare opportunity to witness a flawless rendering of a modern classic!  

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