Horses Torment Boy in ‘Equus’

A 17-year-old boy named Alan Strang blinds six horses with a steel spike. An intensive psychological analysis by Martin Dysart reveals that Strang has both a religious and sexual fascination with horses.
The journey through Strang’s troubled and conflicted mind is captured in the East West Players’ rendition of Peter Shaffer’s ‘Equus,’ which continues in Los Angeles until Nov. 20. Directed by Tim Dang, ‘Equus,’ the Latin word for horse, stars George Takei as Dysart. The East West Players’ status as a professional Asian-American theater organization greatly enhances the Tony Award-winning play with Taikoproject, an American taiko drumming production.
Taikoproject commands the respect and attention of the audience and immediately sets a serious atmosphere. As the lights fade on the performers, the understated lighting, devised by Rand Ryan, creates a mood on which the actors build as they enter the stage, which is also minimalist. Consisting of a simple platform with two benches and additional benches on the edges for off-stage characters, Maiko Nezu’s set design further contributes to the East West Players’ excellent ability to generate a high emotional quotient utilizing minimalist techniques.
In his portrayal of Dysart, however, actor Takei is initially too minimalist. When fellow psychiatrist and friend Hesther Saloman (Jeanne Sakata) enters the stage to converse with Dysart, she bounces her energy off her colleague to find little reciprocation.
The problem, which only afflicts Takei during the opening scenes of the play, is highlighted when Dysart exclaims ‘really?’ and ‘that’s fascinating,’ with few traces of apparent fascination. Although Takei later intensifies the passion of his naturally emotionally stifled character, a less gentle progression would have benefited his first act on-stage chemistry.
The parents of Alan (Trieu D. Tran) are Frank (Alberto Isaac), a strict television-forbidding printer who believes that ‘religion is the opium of the people,’ and Dora (Dian Kobayashi), a devout Christian who believes that children should be given space to grow and flourish. The conflicting and competing ideologues of Dora and Frank have a deep impact on the psyche of Alan.
Following a beachside encounter with a young man on a horse (‘The horse’s name is Trojan and you can stroke him if you like’), Alan begins his obsession with horses. His mother reads religious passages, which often mention the courage and role of horses, to his enjoyment every night. The horses of ‘Equus’ are abstractly represented by six tall men who each wear sculpted metal headdresses in the shape of a horse’s head.
Eventually, Alan’s father can no longer tolerate his wife’s overbearing religious teachings and he takes away a loved but violent picture above Alan’s bed of Jesus being stabbed as he struggles in chains. Distraught, Alan replaces Jesus, literally and symbolically, with a horse.
Soon Alan finds a job at the local stables with the help of Jill Mason (Cheryl Tsai) and becomes further entranced by the creatures. As cream drips out of the horses’ mouths, Alan realizes he admires the horses most when they are wet with sweat. He draws a parallel between the image of Jesus in chains and Nugget being trapped in chains.
Organized religion and Alan’s personal fascination with horses are again mixed in a nightly ritual he develops, which involves reciting a Bible-like family chain of Latin-sounding names, leading eventually to Equus, who ‘bears away all the sins of the world.’
When Alan finally opens himself up emotionally to his psychiatrist, he and Dysart act excellently together. Tran does a superb job of presenting the complex mind of Alan to the audience and can be largely credited for leading to an incredibly engaging and intense climax, in which Alan himself climaxes on a horse named Nugget, played by Wesley John.
As Dysart eases Alan through his painful memories, society’s social norms, represented by Alan and Jill’s sexual encounter, are juxtaposed with Alan’s complicated relationship with horses.
The well-portrayed physical intensity of Tran’s character Alan is continued by the mental intensity brought out by a final soliloquy from Takei’s character Dysart. The psychiatrist ironically notes that he is envious of Alan’s world full of passion and emotion, and yet Alan is the one being treated for insanity. Again noting his own dull and passionless life, Dysart knows that his meetings with Alan have forced him to confront an inner struggle of his own: As an experienced psychiatrist, should he take the pain out of Alan’s otherwise colorless life?
‘Can you think of anything worse to do to a person,’ Dysart painfully asks, ‘than take away their worship?’
The generally well-acted ‘Equus’ compares the divergence of civilized society’s forced social norms and ‘the passionate spirit of the life force itself.’ East West Players poses the question, without giving a clear answer, of whether a life of pain is more preferable than a life without any feeling at all.