Monday, July 19, 2010

Equus--once lethal, now average

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 07.19.2010


IN JULY 1973, when Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” debuted in London, The Guardian’s Michael Billington hailed it as “sensationally good”--a play whose “intellectual argument and poetic imagery are virtually indivisible.”

Repertory Philippines’ ongoing production of “Equus” at Onstage Greenbelt 1 makes clear that, nearly 40 years later, the play’s poetry remains vital and intact. It’s the intellectual riggings that are shown, upon second look, to have frayed considerably over time.

While Shaffer’s lines, especially as delivered by a technically flawless Miguel Faustmann (playing the psychiatrist Martin Dysart), still transfix with their power and beauty, what they’re talking about is, in the end, rather wearyingly silly.

You wouldn’t immediately know that, however, from the care and respect with which this play has been mounted. Audie Gemora’s direction of Shaffer’s densely worded psychodrama, a touchstone play in its time for its highbrow exploration of rationality and madness, elegantly teases out the mystery of why an introverted stable boy of 17 (Alan Strang, alternately played by Red Concepcion and Marco Mañalac) would commit a seemingly senseless act of extreme violence--blinding six horses under his care, when he practically worshipped the animals.

Compacting the play within a near-bare central platform ringed by a series of shadowy recesses from which the horses (half-naked muscular men wearing glinting wire-mesh equine heads) would emerge, Gemora’s uncluttered staging has the benefit of letting Shaffer’s shimmering language do its work.

The effect is intensely theatrical (John Batalla’s lighting and Jethro Joaquin’s atmospheric sound design are of superb help), yet much is still left to the imagination, as befits a play that lends great sympathy to the workings of the unfettered mind.

Ironically, it is when one goes beyond the stagecraft and peers more closely at what it all means that the play’s galloping argument, as it were, starts to lose stride.


Homogenizing impulse
In “Equus,” Shaffer offers a critique of the power of civilization and modernity to destroy what’s free and primeval in people--specifically among the mentally challenged, which this play holds up as shamans of heretofore untapped knowledge and insight. To make them “normal” is to take away that primitive fire, lobotomize them into ghostly shells of themselves.

(In place of the field where a naked Strang, at midnight, would ride the horse that has become his god, he’s giving the boy “new places of ecstasy--multilevel highways,” Dysart laments.)

In the ’60s-’70s, when pop culture and faddish psychology made counter-cultural heroes of nonconformists and anarchists (e.g., Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest;” the Broadway musical “Hair;” Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange”), when the hippie spirit mocked the strangling, homogenizing impulse of modern life, this was arguably heady stuff--nothing less than a poke in the eye of the Establishment. Now, it sounds only quaint, shortsighted.

Unhappily, that hokey premise is at the heart of “Equus” more than the whydunit story of the boy and those unfortunate horses. Thus, Dysart’s existential angst (what he calls his “professional menopause”--might it not be the actual kind?) has him spending much of Acts 1 and 2 bemoaning the supposedly stark options before him.

To be fair, his self-lacerating monologues do offer the pleasure of being couched in Shaffer’s bewitching lines (“I settle for the pallid and provincial out of my own eternal timidity,” goes one.)

Lucid delivery
And this set-up is catnip to Faustmann, an actor with a proven ability for the elongated, bravura line. His delivery is astoundingly clear and well-sustained, rendering this voluble play vivid and lucid throughout.

He is, however, hobbled by something else--a surface skill for the dark and tragic. His Dysart hardly evinces genuine despair or self-loathing, and without these undercurrents, his character’s newfound grievances eventually elide into lugubrious whining.

Faustmann’s Dysart is more a chirpy bourgeois gentleman than a harassed shrink teetering on the edge of his own breakdown. When he badmouths his philistine wife to a colleague, the tone is jocular, and the audience dutifully laughs with him.

Yet the text is clear--Dysart is actually repulsed at himself for having arrived at this point, when his sense of misery has forced him to breach his code of propriety by laughing at his wife in public. That bitterness isn’t there.

(Or perhaps we watched too early in the run? Nearly everyone in the cast still seemed to be feeling their way around the set and their characters. Concepcion has a better grasp of his by several notches compared to Mañalac, but both of them could fill out the role more plausibly given time. Their commitment already seems absolute at this point; the play’s lengthy and harrowing nude scenes would tax actors of lesser constitution.

(As Strang’s parents, Jaime del Mundo and Tami Monsod are individually good, but have yet to lock into a prickly chemistry together. It’s Pheona Baranda, as the girl who seduces Strang into a fateful sexual encounter, that beguiles with a sweet, affectless performance.)


Ferocious passion
Dysart, trapped in that arid marriage and a listless life flecked with desultory, cautious holidays in Greece, the glories of whose ancient pagan culture he has come to equate with Strang’s untamed inner world, now dreads the sterilizing effects of the “normal” life he’s reintroducing his patient into--“the good smile in a child’s eyes, [but] also the dead stare in a million adults... the ordinary made beautiful, the average made lethal.”

Why? Because “That boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have known in any second of my life, and I envy it!,” he roars. “That’s what his stare’s been saying to me all this time--‘At least I galloped! When did you?!’”

“Equus” takes some two hours and 30 minutes to make a theatrically fervid, diligent case for the nobility and creativity of the mentally unbalanced. Who will argue with that? Yet its bleak dichotomy sounds hollow.

“My desire might be to make of this boy an ardent husband, a caring citizen, a worshipper of a unifying and abstract god. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost!” says Dysart.

Really? Is ardent parenting not a good enough passion? Is patriotism, which has shed uncontainable blood and bred more than its share of heroic, if hardly mad, instigators? If that isn’t passion, what is? More, can’t someone be “ordinary” enough yet live a creative, productive, impassioned life with its own richly realized gods and rituals?


Corrective
In the 1977 film version of “Equus,” Hesther, the judge-friend of Dysart (played by Roselyn Perez in Rep’s staging, by the great Eileen Atkins in the film), offers the one indispensable corrective to Dysart’s ululations and the play’s sentimental bent with this appeal to common sense and perspective:

“You’ve made other things. Your own thoughts, your own skills--absolutely what’s unique to you. I watched you do it year after year and it’s marvelous! You can’t just sit there now and say it’s all provincial and you’re just a butcher... All right, you never galloped. Too bad! Let me tell you, if I had to choose between that boy’s galloping and your training, I’ll take the training anytime, and what’s more, so will the boy at this moment. That stare of his isn’t accusing you, it’s simply demanding! Just that--your power to pull him out of the nightmare he’s galloped himself into!”

Shaffer himself wrote the screenplay, so we’re reasonably sure those lines were his. Curiously--inexplicably--those words are no longer in the current stage revival. Hesther’s rebuttal of Dysart’s anguish over the boy is now a wan pseudo-explanation: “Maybe he just wants a new dad.”

Where did the lines go? Why were they cut? Without them, “Equus” is so much horsepower spent on, well, nothing much. The lethal, in effect, made average.


(Repertory Philippines’ “Equus” runs until July 25 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. For ticket inquiries, call 8870710 or visit www.repertory.ph.)

6 comments:

Martin said...

Hi Gibbs!

Hesther's "maybe he just wants a new dad" line appears in the published script of the play, which is probably what Rep followed initially. It appears they have since replaced it with the (much better) lines from the film (based on yesterday's show).

Great review, as always! :)

gibbs cadiz said...

good to hear that, MARTIN! i watched the show twice, didn't hear the lines (was looking forward to them), was kinda disturbed they weren't there so i checked backstage if roselyn merely forgot. di daw, she said everything that was on the script, so that meant there was a version, indeed, that cut the lines out. good if they've decided to bring them back. :)

Anonymous said...

the review seem to focus on the material. this is nice. pero what about the play? the staging?

gibbs cadiz said...

you must have missed these parts:

You wouldn’t immediately know that, however, from the care and respect with which this play has been mounted. Audie Gemora’s direction of Shaffer’s densely worded psychodrama, a touchstone play in its time for its highbrow exploration of rationality and madness, elegantly teases out the mystery of why an introverted stable boy of 17 (Alan Strang, alternately played by Red Concepcion and Marco Mañalac) would commit a seemingly senseless act of extreme violence--blinding six horses under his care, when he practically worshipped the animals.

Compacting the play within a near-bare central platform ringed by a series of shadowy recesses from which the horses (half-naked muscular men wearing glinting wire-mesh equine heads) would emerge, Gemora’s uncluttered staging has the benefit of letting Shaffer’s shimmering language do its work.

The effect is intensely theatrical (John Batalla’s lighting and Jethro Joaquin’s atmospheric sound design are of superb help), yet much is still left to the imagination, as befits a play that lends great sympathy to the workings of the unfettered mind...

And this set-up is catnip to Faustmann, an actor with a proven ability for the elongated, bravura line. His delivery is astoundingly clear and well-sustained, rendering this voluble play vivid and lucid throughout.

He is, however, hobbled by something else--a surface skill for the dark and tragic. His Dysart hardly evinces genuine despair or self-loathing, and without these undercurrents, his character’s newfound grievances eventually elide into lugubrious whining.

Faustmann’s Dysart is more a chirpy bourgeois gentleman than a harassed shrink teetering on the edge of his own breakdown. When he badmouths his philistine wife to a colleague, the tone is jocular, and the audience dutifully laughs with him.

Yet the text is clear--Dysart is actually repulsed at himself for having arrived at this point, when his sense of misery has forced him to breach his code of propriety by laughing at his wife in public. That bitterness isn’t there.

(Or perhaps we watched too early in the run? Nearly everyone in the cast still seemed to be feeling their way around the set and their characters. Concepcion has a better grasp of his by several notches compared to Mañalac, but both of them could fill out the role more plausibly given time. Their commitment already seems absolute at this point; the play’s lengthy and harrowing nude scenes would tax actors of lesser constitution.

(As Strang’s parents, Jaime del Mundo and Tami Monsod are individually good, but have yet to lock into a prickly chemistry together. It’s Pheona Baranda, as the girl who seduces Strang into a fateful sexual encounter, that beguiles with a sweet, affectless performance.)

Fickle Cattle said...

I disagree, at least in reference to your discussion on the relevance of the play today, but nice review, as always.

I think your argument only works if you look at the lines of Dysart in a vacuum; that is, without considering the environment from where the ideas spring from. I agree that the dichotomy Dysart presents is really a false dilemma; however, I also think that his lines are merely a product of the elements of the play as a whole. Furthermore, what he actually says, at least at face value, is the least important of the lessons one can derive from the play.

For me, what the play presents is really the interaction of religion, psychology and society, and how these relationships affect the individual who does not conform to the prevailing norm. Strang is particularly unique because he was brought up by a fervent Christian and a dogmatic atheist (setting aside the plausibility of that relationship, we suspend disbelief). And of all things, he grows up pagan! The idea that he cannot believe what he wants to believe without being humiliated (in two very different ways by the father and the mother) is the starting point from where we can start to understand the psychological and social underpinnings of the story. And we cannot just brush under the carpet his worship as the ramblings of a crazy man; paganism has as much value (or non-value if you're an atheist) as Christianity. He was a closet pagan, and the idea that people will know what he is fundamentally, terrifies him (consider his reluctance to open up to the good doctor, or his inability to explain to the girl that the stable is his temple).

And so the real dilemma isn't what Dysart (also a pagan, as he himself declared) says, but the fact that society has pushed the two into roles that refused to allow them to accept their passion without being humiliated or scorned. And so you have two very pitiful creatures, one driven to insanity because he dared embrace his passion and worship, and Dysart, who will forever be imprisoned by the consequences of his own timidity. I look at the play as a tragedy.
I’m agnostic, and so the play was especially interesting for me because of one more point. I’m especially amused when people attribute the worship of horses as something only a crazy person will do. In my mind, it’s not that different from believing that the piece of bread you’re about to swallow is a piece of divinity, or that someone was possessed of the spirit and gave a virgin birth. As Christians always say, it all boils down to faith. The boy had it in spades, why then is he considered crazy? Even if the object of his faith isn’t something most people will worship, there’s no reason why it cannot be considered a legitimate religion. I’m not ready to concede that a religion requires a multitude before it can be given legitimacy.
So that’s why I disagree. On the contrary, I consider the play very relevant. There are several lessons to be learned, all debatable, on the nature of religion, the value (or non-value of religion), the usefulness of social standards, etc., and in a country that is as dogmatically religious as ours, the play opens a discussion that is usually otherwise closed.


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