A funereal gloom has descended upon the Andrews Theatre, where David Oliver's stylish if somewhat numbing production of Peter Shaffer's 1973 play "Equus" opened on Oct. 28.
The funeral, as fans of Shaffer's much-revived psychodrama may be aware, is to mark the clinical death of human passion. And the priest presiding over the sad affair is psychiatrist Martin Dystart (Vincent O'Neill), who is charged with treating a boy who has committed an unthinkable act of violence against a stable full of horses.
The boy, Alan (P.J. Tighe), is an intricately constructed foil for Martin, a man trapped in loveless marriage and unrewarding career. In session after contentious session, punctuated by his own personal asides, Martin develops a paralyzing jealousy for his young patient's unrestrained passion.
Though Shaffer's script is mired in the anachronistic language of 1970s psychoanalysis, his subject matter remains utterly startling. Shaffer's insertion of so many complex notions about sex, religion and the unconscious into one relationship is a remarkable feat of construction. And his poetic approach fuses imagery of fear, longing and beauty more deftly than any other 20th century playwright.
"I wish there was one person in my life I could show," Martin whines during one of his bouts of self-pity, "one instinctive, absolutely un-brisk person I could take to Greece and stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say, 'Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods."
These lyrical if sometimes indulgent monologues require a delivery that relieves them of some of their intrinsic weight and infuses them with a sense of extemporaneous ease. Instead, O'Neill adds several pounds to the script with a modulated, poetic recitation that tends to obscure his character's emotional core.
As a result, Shaffer's prose floats below the ecstatic heights it is capable of reaching and Martin's journey of self-discovery feels less like a shot to the heart and more like a slow saline drip. If this was the intended effect, the intention was misguided.
Tighe, by contrast and even perhaps by poor design, allows the audience direct and sometimes terrifying views into Alan's tortured soul. He convincingly affects unarmored earnestness, adolescent rebellion and psychosexual ecstasy, sometimes all at once. This is no mean feat, but Tighe pulls it off with harrowing results.
Where the production shines brightest through the gloom is in its haunting design, featuring graceful human-horse hybrids that act out the boy's self-devised rituals according to Gerry Trentham's excellent choreography. David Dwyer's set, with a floor of wooden planks and a floating crown of jagged boards suggesting the outline of a stable, blurs beautifully the boundaries between Martin's dank office and his patient's tortured memory.
Dim lighting by Brian Cavanagh, including an expert chiaroscuro treatment of a crucial love scene between Alan and a girl (Kelsey Mogensen) and the subsequent blinding of his equine idols, is masterful. As are Ann Emo's costumes and borrowed metal horse-heads, operated with silent skill by Adam Hayes, Brett Klaczyk, Jordan Levin, Joshus Ranall, Lamont Singletary and Dudney Joseph.
Gergory Gjurich, Mararet Massman, Wendy Hall, Steve Jakiel and Jennifer Fitzery also appear in secondary roles, in performances ranging from barely there to overwrought.
Even if the play's central performance does not quite mitigate the dustiness of Shaffer's script, this "Equus" succeeds on its stylish design and on the evergreen ingenuity of its central conflict. Like a race horse slightly past its prime, the show retains its majesty even if its luster has faded.
★★★ (out of four)
Drama presented through Nov. 20 in the Andrews Theater in an Irish Classical Theatre Company production. Tickets are $45. Call 853-4828 or visit irishclassical.com.