By Sarah Henning
Anchorage Daily News
VALDEZ — Alan Strang blinded five horses with a metal spike.
In “Equus,” playwright Peter Shaffer tells us Alan is empathetic and logical. Enviable, even.
Shaffer’s disturbing psychological drama — coupled with Perseverance Theatre’s artful staging and spotless cast — created a mentally volcanic experience Sunday evening at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference.
The state’s only professional theater company, based in Juneau, boasts a fantastic roster including Broadway resumes and Juilliard pedigrees.
Yet it was a young actor with the shortest bio in the program who successfully carried the weight of 17-year-old Alan.
As Alan endures therapy and flashbacks in a mental ward, Juneau native Levi Fiehler must flip moods on a switch. Here, age 6 and filled with innocent wonder. There, an ecstatic worshipper possessed with a holy spirit of his own invention.
Throughout, he must play a realistic troubled teen while skirting around the after-school special cliches. Alan is obstinate, embarrassed, endearing, desperate, angry, confused, horny — often all at once. Fiehler convincingly wore Alan’s skin in every scene.
The Alan Strang character has kept audiences rubbernecking at the car wreck of his life since he was created in 1973. Thanks in part to his pragmatic, repressed father (Ed Christian) and his uber-Christian mother (Sybil Lines), religion, sexuality and horses were jumbled together in the blender of Alan’s formative years. He prays to horses. He’s also aroused by them. Eventually, he defaces his maned gods so they can’t see his shameful behavior.
The plot’s other focus is Alan’s foil, psychiatrist Martin Dysart, played by the affecting Brandon Demery. The academic leads an antiseptic life and admires Alan’s passion, disregarding its violent consequences. The doctor is reluctant to normalize Alan: Taking away his sickness would also rob him of his horse worship, the only time he ever really feels alive and free.
The play asks which is more insane: Lacking passion or fulfilling a socially unacceptable one.
“Equus” is the theatrical equivalent of plutonium. In the right hands, it’s energizing. In the wrong hands, a bomb. That’s mainly because of the sticky, stylized staging of the animal characters. The playwright specifies the presentation of the horses. Shirtless men in street clothes don clunky metal hooves and wire horse heads that leave their human faces visible. They walk upright but bob their heads as horses do.
At times they’re asked to make stomping and vocal noises for a dramatic, choric effect, but the script specifically forbids them to neigh. One slight miscalculation and the gravitas of Alan’s horse-focused spirituality could be lost to laughter — at the play, not with it.
Thanks to five intense actors and the guidance of director P.J. Paparelli and choreographer Natalia Fedorova, the audience saw the impression of horses, not imitations. The horse scenes were engagingly ritualistic but not off-puttingly artificial.
Often the horse encounters unfolded behind a plastic screen hung toward the back of the stage and illuminated with pools of blue light. The removed location created a sense of mystique and gave legitimacy to Alan’s spiritual world. Unfortunately, the screen was also used during ultra-realistic and emotional final scenes where the audience didn’t need awe and distance so much as they needed to see the actors’ faces.
It’s a possibility that, in traveling from Juneau’s thrust stage to Valdez’s unfamiliar proscenium stage there was a miscalculation in what the audience could and couldn’t see.
Or perhaps Valdez just wasn’t ready for the nudity in those scenes without a screen to filter out some of the actors’ vital information. Either way, the audience was obstructed from feeling the full power of those brave, raw performances.
Despite that, in the hands of Perseverance “Equus” is as powerful and beautiful as its galloping subjects.
Daily News arts reporter Sarah Henning is reporting from the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez this week. Check her ongoing blog entries here.