Ominous Om´s and Hellish Horseheads

You know you’ve found yourself at an absurdly deranged theater show when during the performance you begin silently scribbling to yourself the following;

                                                                                                       sexual madness?

The scrawled note was a direct response to a specific plot development in Portland’s Post5 Theatre rendition of Peter Shaffer’s critically acclaimed 1973 play Equus, and it essentially sums up my experience; heavy and uncomfortable speculations on a barrage of scandalous topics for nearly three hours. I do not mean this to suggest any condemnations I have against the play. I enjoyed this production. It dragooned me to ask questions about subjects I’ve never considered, and anything that compels me to spontaneously write ‘sexual madness?’ is something I’ll always be interested in spending time with — for better or worse.

Equus, the theatre’s last production of their 2015 Season, is a psychological mystery of sorts, concerning a deeply intelligent but personally unsatisfied psychiatrist named Dr. Martin Dysart (Todd Van Voris) and his attempt to solve a case where a troubled young man, Alan Strange (Philip Berns), violently blinds six horses with a metal spike one night. As Dr. Drysart delves deeper into the investigation, the truths surrounding Alan’s heinous crime serves as an eventual catalyst for Martin’s own personal, existential fears.

This is the second Post5 Theatre show I’ve been to, the first being Comedy of Errors, a charming and uproarious comedy regarding a playful case of mistaken identities. Equus is the spiritual Ying-Yang response to Comedy of Errors; it is dark, twisted, and relentlessly interested in its characters’ murky and complicated inner worlds. Thankfully, Equus is not a complete commitment to a night of morose theater; the script struts it’s witty dialogue and comical circumstances frequently, and Post5’s cast and crew do a strikingly superb job at meeting the script’s demand for moments both terrifying and hilarious.

Philip J Berns as "Alan Strang" in Equus. Photo Credit: Russell J Young
Philip J Berns as “Alan Strang” in Equus. Photo Credit: Russell J Young

In particular, the meaty conviction from actor Todd Van Voris and his utterly conflicted portrayal of Dr. Martin Dysart was among the highlights of the night. Literally anchoring the show with an intriguing opening monologue and a gut-wrenching closer, Mr. Van Voris’ performance captures both of the play’s key elements; deep existential yearning and a morbid-as-hell curiosity. Despite how heavy all the circumstances and information his character has to deal with are, he also was among the most fun and believable to watch; he reminded me of some bizarrely efficiently functioning fusion between Philip Seymour Hoffman´s character from 2012´s The Master and Kelsey Grammer from Frasier. The other actor I’d love to point out is Tony Green, playing the brutally tormented father  of Alan Strange. What started off as a cliche of a character — the working-class father with a mad and ugly bone in him that’s perpetually yelling — transformed into something truly heart-wrenching to watch, as certain information regarding Alan’s fateful night comes to light.    

There was a frequent tendency of the characters to feel contrived, however. Alan’s mother reminded me of the cliche hysterical mother that refuses to come to terms with a heavy reality, and Alan’s supposed explosions of rage toward Dr. Drysart at times felt merely like a teenager who didn’t get his way over a trivial matter. In both cases, I simply wasn’t entirely convinced of their performances, and maybe it’s because the emotional portrayal of what their characters were going through was predictable and “done before,” and in this predictability the dramatic storytelling dips just a tad. But, these instances were only sometimes a matter and did not plague either of their performances, thankfully.

The production value was fabulous I thought, rigged with sounds of ominous ommmms consistently humming throughout the production and hellish horse head masks were worn during essential points that from the start created an uber-unsettling environment for all the psychological / philosophical unravelings that happen throughout. And in terms of lighting, this was the busiest yet subtle expression of lighting I’ve seen all year (in my admittedly short go at theater). During specific plot points, the narrative would shift from Present (Dr. Drysart trying to solve Alan in his office) to Memory (inside Alan’s own mid and memories) by mere shift of stage placement from the cast and subtle and well thought-out light changes, often signifying through this manipulation of light all sorts of indescribable but subconsciously perceptible character insights.  

Philip J. Berns as "Alan Strang" shares the stage with Olivia Wess as "Jill Mason". Photo Credit: Russell J Young
Philip J. Berns as “Alan Strang” shares the stage with Olivia Wess as “Jill Mason”. Photo Credit: Russell J Young

Equus is a complex play thematically; strange sexual undertones and ambiguous ideas about Gods, Fathers, and Passion. However, certain moments and ideas from this play stick out like a sore thumb — but only in the best of ways. As I allow the ending to give itself time to breathe so I can understand it completely, the more I am impressed at how utterly twisted this play actually is.  

Post5 Theatre’s overall commitment to passionate and professional theater is excellent. Aside the maddening costs of beverages and snacks, the experience was very pleasant and the actual venue has improved as well; a fixed ceiling and a reduction of the almost intolerable heat problem that plagued even the joyous summer run of Comedy of Errors. Well, actually, I suppose it is Fall, so I’m not sure if it’s the weather or a fixed air-conditioner. Or maybe it’s neither, and I’ve merely projected terrible and traumatic childhood experiences of being locked in a roasting car… I’m becoming as confused with reality and my delusions as these characters are! Equus has rubbed off on me! HELP!!  

Equus runs through October 16 – November 16.  All shows Friday – Sunday at 7:30pm.

By Estevan Munoz

I joined Thru Magazine as a writer in January of 2015. I was born on July 1st 1995. I am from New Mexico. Writing, acting, visual arts, and rapping are my creative outlets. I am learning to cook, and have found chicken to be the easiest, tastiest, and cheapest for my skill set, time, and financial reality at the moment.

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