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'Equus' thought-provoking at PAC

Posted: May 25, 2012 6:00 a.m.
Updated: May 25, 2012 6:00 a.m.

Dim lights cast a hazy grayness over the stage. Characters brood and discover. Hypnotic writing pulls the audience deeper until they feel as crazed as the actors on stage. Layers of meaning are peeled back one at a time as two lead actors peel off their clothes. The play climaxes to revelations as dark and complex as the actors' performances. Dr. Dysart's final words cling to your mind like questions you've been too afraid to ask.

Like the word itself, "Equus" is an unusual play. It has conjured curiosity and intense audience reactions since its premier production in 1973. The production stirred high praise and mild shock from local theatre savants at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center (PAC) this past weekend. Presented by the COC theatre department, the cast was a mix of students and community members.

The mystery-driven plot begins when a 17-year-old boy's passion for religion and horses drives him to blind six horses. Act one opens as the boy, Alan Strang, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Along with the boy's psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, the audience discovers through flashbacks the events that cause his violent outbreak. The play climaxes as Alan reenacts the night of his crime in Dr. Dysart's office.

Playwright Peter Schaffer was inspired by true events when a boy committed the same crime in England. An internationally acclaimed production, "Equus" won three Tony Awards, including Best Play in 1975. A 2007 Broadway revival featured "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe as Alan, Richard Griffiths as Dr. Dysart and "True Blood" actress Anna Camp as Jill Mason.

Stephen Whelan, previously a COC director, plays Dr. Dysart. Timmy Jasperson appeared in "Death of a Salesman" at the PAC and plays Alan Strang, while Rachel Andrea Cox plays Jill Mason. John Demita directed and Paul Wikline produced, taking a risk by bringing "Equus" to the Santa Clarita Valley.

Just a few quotes about the produciton include: "Groundbreaking." "Thought-provoking." "Obscure." "Bold." "My favorite play of all time."

The modest crowd was composed mostly of students, theatre scene locals and dedicated Schaffer fans. An intimate audience was expected, though roughly 100 people formed a smaller crowd than other PAC performances.

"I was really impressed by the production value and the acting," said Bonnie Sludikoff.

The play didn't just please "Equus" fans. "I came into it not knowing what to expect, and I really enjoyed it," said Rachel Randall.

"It's a more obscure play, so I am sort of surprised to see it playing here," said Jeff Beebe. It was a surprising choice for "conservative" Santa Clarita because of three scenes that resonated with the audience.

Murky light warmed the stage for the nude scene, creating the illusion of a memory. At opposite ends of the stage, Alan and his co-worker Jill Mason shed their clothes like layers of meaning. The scene lasted for a few minutes, and though they touched, it was tasteful and soft.

"It's the first play here that has actually had full nudity," said Alex White.

"It's very hard to do something like they did up there," said Skylar Barti.

It is "important for the storyline and messages," said Randall.

"There is a whole metaphor that the horse is naked, and he is naked." That metaphor cannot be communicated without the nudity, she explained.

Following the nude scene, Alan blinded the horses in a fit of passion. Completely animal, the actors bucked and cowered in pain as flashes of color lit up their shrieks. The scene was dynamic and chilling.

"The chorus of horses was much more impacting to me than anything else because of the way they formed and shifted into society and out," said Friné Coley.

Finally, the doctor concludes with a monologue, questioning society's understanding of normalcy.

"The psychiatrist is putting himself in Alan's shoes and asking, ‘Which one of us is normal?'" said Sludikoff. Then Sludikoff and Randall chime in, as if on cue, to add, "What is normal?"

"Who's insane, Alan or Dysart?" asked Sam Fleischer, a devoted fan of the playwright. "Schaffer keeps going back and forth between different messages."

"Equus" is the Latin word for "horse," and much like its title, the play conveys unusual meanings.
"This is the boldest production they have done," said Randall, pleased and surprised by the choice.



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