Equus: Madness, sex and death merge violently on the JCCC stage
JCCC, Department of Theatre
The first thing I noticed as I pulled into the Johnson County Community College campus Saturday night to view their production of "Equus", was that the parking lot was surprisingly full. Granted, Peter Shaffer's play has been a favorite on the professional and amateur stages for going on forty years now, but even so, there seemed to be an awful lot of people. The second thing I noticed was that there was, for some reason, rather more in the way of Polynesian dresses, leis, etc, than one would generally associate with a taut psychological drama. It turned out that there was in fact a Hawaiian musical group preforming in the main hall that night, and that the object of my interest was actually being performed in a small side theatre.
The Bodker Black Box Theatre is aptly named. It is a small, intimate space, black and stark in a compact theatre-in-the-round. Three walls are lined with seats for the audience, the fourth being the entrance and exit point, with two rows of seats for additional cast. In the middle, there is a rotating square stage with corner benches and barriers that could be folded up as needed. In short, the place looks as if it was purpose-built for a production of "The Crucible" and then, having made the thing, they decided to see how many other plays they could squeeze into it. "Equus", not being a play that particularly relies upon elaborate scenery or staging, generally fits well into this space, but not without some complications.
The story follows Dr Martin Dysart (Bill Pelletier), a psychiatrist in a hospital for disturbed youth in England in the mid 1970s. Court magistrate and old friend Hesther Salomon (Kendra Verhage) brings him a troubled young man, Alan Strang (Erik Meixelsperger), convicted of blinding six horses with a hoof pick. Dr Dysart goes to work trying to analyze the boy, endeavoring to work out the series of events that led up to this act. In doing so, he encounters a childhood filled with religious and sexual conflict, warring parents, madness and devotion. As the climax approaches and the horrible truth comes out, the psychiatrist finds himself questioning his ability to help the boy, and whether doing so is even desirable.
Generally, the performances are quite competent. Pelletier brought a fine maturity to the role of the healer whose own midlife wounds go unhealed. Meixelsperger conveys just the right tone of anger and vulnerability, and the chemistry between the two hits all the right levels of intensity and bathos. Other standouts are Ruby Renee Purtee as Strang's devout mother, and Sommer Brecheisen as Jill, the girl who works at the stables with him. Generally speaking, the cast did a good job, though admittedly a couple of players never did seem quite able to come to grips with the British accent. They were ably helped along with Marybeth Sorrell's costume designs, and the lighting and sound were used to good effect (the theatre was well insulated against the neighboring performance, so no Hawaiian music for us. Almost a pity; it would have added an interestingly surreal touch to the proceedings).
Traditionally, the staging of "Equus" is minimal, with basic sets and horses portrayed by mute players in wire-frame masks, and this production adheres rigidly to tradition. There are very few risks taken here; indeed, when the climactic scene takes place, the nudity is tempered somewhat--forgivable, given that this is a school production. The only real complaint one can make is that, during the aforementioned climax, the stage direction saw fit to put up the barriers around the stage and stand the horses at each of the openings facing the audience. This in itself was not too bad, but given that most of the subsequent action takes place on the floor, this caused two principal characters to essentially disappear from view for the duration of the scene. In fairness, this may have been due to the almost-nudity, but it does mean that for one of the most tense and emotional moments in the play, we don't have so much as a glimpse of the boy Strang's face. Perhaps this is a clever, winking callback to an earlier scene in which he and Jill go to see a skin flick but are prevented from seeing the payoff, but mostly it just irritates and pulls one out of the action.
Take it all in all, "Equus" is a fascinating glimpse into psychology, sex, devotion and madness, and the places in the human mind where they all come together. The JCCC performers have for the most part done well by the material, with only a few performances and staging decisions jolting the viewer out of their suspension of disbelief. In the end, while one leaves the theatre not entirely satisfied, one nevertheless must acknowledge that there is certainly some excellent talent coming up through the Music and Theatre department, and hope that their talents will continue to flourish and grow.
And if they can work in the odd ukulele and pedal steel guitar, then so much the better.