Let's talk about passion. (No, you don't have to tell small children to leave the room.) Passion, and the related phenomenon of worship, is a powerful engine driving creativity and achievement. As the philosopher Friedrich Hegel has said, "Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion."
Then again, it seems that most of the awful things in the world have also been the product of passion. Can anyone doubt the passion empowering those young white men in Charlottesville who, with spittle spraying from their lips and their eyes afire, shouted down those who were different from themselves? Indeed, passion is a two-edged sword and when wrestling for control of that sword, it's the person holding the handle who always wins.
Passion is at the core of the play Equus, which is now playing at the Blank Canvas Theatre. And in his program notes, which also offer the Hegel quote above, the theater's artistic director and director of this show Patrick Ciamacco asks us to think about our own passions. In particular, he muses on those feelings in comparison to those of playwright Peter Shaffer's central character Alan Strang.
From the very start, we see 17-year-old Alan as a monster, since he's recently blinded six horses in his charge while working as a stable boy. Set in a psychiatric hospital in southern England, Shaffer immediately adds complexity to the yarn by assigning the Strang case to a shrink who has plenty of his own issues.
Martin Dysart is a child psychiatrist who is moving through his lockstep career with a demonstrable lack of passion. Since his life has become a series of disappointments, he has qualms about trying to make the kids he counsels as "normal" and as bereft of inspiration as he is. He even has a dream in which he, as a public official in ancient Greece, eviscerates scores of kids and pulls out their intestines. Clearly, this ain't no Frasier Crane.
The bulk of the play is involved with sorting out how Alan came to this ghastly place in his life, with scenes involving his mum and dad, and how Dysart becomes further entangled in Alan's overwhelming horse-y psychosis. This requires a truly poetic approach to the material, since we are cantering across a fraught landscape of mental disorientation, and in that task this production is only partially successful.
The scenic design by Ciamacco is marvelous, featuring a dugout in the center of the elevated stage where Alan spends most of his time. This keeps the teenager front and center, turning him into a visual bull's eye that others continually target, often to justify their own agendas.
Six actors portray the horses, wearing sculpted metal horse heads designed by Noah Hrbek, and these are spectacular—large and elegant enough to dominate the fleshy bodies that animate them. What is lacking is the kind of movement that could have made these horses come to life, in the way the horses do, say, in the stage version of War Horse.
In this production, the magical intensity of the horses stops at the neck, as the actors shuffle around the periphery of the stage in a less than compelling manner. And more could have been done to elucidate Alan's closeness and—let's just say it: sexual attraction—with one particular horse, Nugget, and a phantom horseman (Daryl Kelley). Where's a choreographer when you need one?
As Alan, Antonio DeJesus is just as distant and mysterious as you'd expect him to be. His sullen mask eventually slips as he gets used to sharing some truths with Dysart and during his interactions with Jill (Sarah Blubaugh), a young woman who introduced Alan to the stable owner Harry (Chris Bizub). By refraining from obvious and broad acting choices, DeJesus provides a strong center for the proceedings.
In the role of Dysart, Russell B. Kunz adopts a squishy-friendly aura that seems perfectly right for this therapist. And his dialog scenes with DeJesus are given a deft touch. But Dysart has frequent monologues directed at the audience, as he shares his thoughts and inner conflicts, and those moments often feel meandering and unfocused. By not shaping those speeches and giving them their own internal momentum, Kunz sacrifices a large part of his character's demons and desires.
In supporting roles, Andrew Narten and Claudia Esposito are particularly resonant as Alan's parents, Frank and Dora. It was Dora who first introduced her son to biblical stories, such as the crucifixion, which mixed in his head with his love of horses from western movies and such. And Esposito conveys Dora's frustration and pain with quiet desperation. As the hard-ass dad, Narten reveals the man's hypocrisy and shallowness without turning him into a stereotype.
There are moments in this production, when the horses are gathered together and moving in unison, that one gets the feeling of lift-off that Shaffer's complex script can inspire. But too often, this version is a rather casual trot around a compelling theme.