Imagine the thing you want most –the thing you can’t tell anyone about but haunts your desires. Imagine that, under review by everyone around you. Who decides that your desire has gone too far? This is the most striking question raised by Equus, a FREEKS production, directed by Yash Saraf (‘17) and co-produced by Madelaine Bixler (‘17). The desire in question, Alan Strang’s (intensely and believably played by Niko Varella (‘15)) profound fascination with horses, is an aberrant one. The exploration of the link between desire, obsession, and worship is not.
Jeffrey Abidor’s (‘15) portrayal of the psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, treating Alan is gripping. Truly unhappy in his own life, Dysart questions his role in “normalizing” Alan. In a monologue that questions what being “normal” even means, Abidor delivers an excellent portrayal of a man longing for Alan’s level of passion in his own life, grappling for something bigger than himself.
This staging of this interpretation of Equus tackles the enormity of worship and passion with great success. The small performance space of the Elliott Program Center, and the production’s strikingly minimalist set is overtaken by the sounds of drums, among other less recognizable but no less poignant instruments. While this can be overpowering, there is something to be said for art that makes one uncomfortable. One very memorable scene takes place in Alan’s workplace, an electrical shop. Actors and percussionists walk frenetically through the space, instruments booming, until Alan shouts. At this point, the scene changes. Suddenly, we are in the stable, creatively represented by upturned wooden benches. Horses, played by humans in stunningly designed masks (created by Alicia Seta (‘15)), stand onstage while Alan and his wide-eyed, eager co-worker Jill (Sabelle Smythe (‘16)) weave through them, giving the distinct feeling that Jill and Alan were walking through Alan’s memory of that night.
This is another of the show’s strong points: the exploration of memories by all of the characters, all seated onstage for the duration of the show, watching the memories unfold before them (reminiscent of a courtroom, or being seated in pews at church). The script flows seamlessly between monologues in the present and past. Especially noteworthy execution of this come from Alan’s mother, Dora (Deanna Abrams ‘17), who oscillates between romantic nostalgia of her son’s childhood and hopeless frustration at her inability to help him. These recollections are played out for the audience to see, in a powerful combination of show and tell. Lighting changes help differentiate these scenes quite neatly, easing audience members in and out of memory, though making some of those lighting transitions a little quicker would have helped keep up the pace of the show in between very intense scenes. Other moments in this “show and tell” model fall short when the staging does not quite match the way the scene is described. This may not bother most people, as blocking does not always need to be dictated by the script, but for a show so intent on recreating memories, it is a bit incongruous, for example, for Alan to sit on a bench while remembering a moment in which he was standing. At another instance, Dysart describes the stature of the horse of Alan’s affection, without the horse on stage. This choice lends itself to focus on Abidor’s delivery, but the scene could have benefitted from the presence of the horse.
Equus’s horses are amazing to watch. They move together wonderfully, especially in the ritualistic scenes, with inventive movement, jumps, and kicks. A powerful incarnation of Alan Strang’s God, the horses need to be strong and seductive, and they are. They are entrancing, as is the ingenuity of the masks. While there are definite moments for disenchantment (the clicking of the helmet straps that comprise the masks, or when actors sitting on stage become disengaged themselves –I swear I saw someone onstage yawn), the show overall commands attention, for noteworthy performances, and of course, for the next arrival of the horses. Ultimately, Alan’s desire turned worship of these horses doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The FREEKS’ production of Equus, in exploring this worship, raises the question: Who gets to decide what is normal? Whose desires are open to scrutiny?
A previous version of this article indicated Alicia Seta’s graduation year was 2018.