Student actors and director shine in Equus

equus-play-tabThe Aeneid Theatre Company kicked off their second season last Thursday with a production of Equus, which ran until Sunday. Written by Peter Shaffer, the 1973 drama describes the case of a child psychiatrist attempting to unravel the psychological underpinnings of a teenager’s religious and sexual obsession with horses. Directed by Ryan David McRee and starring Shrey Bhargava as psychiatrist Martin Dysart and Alexander Pires as teenage patient Alan Strang, Equus is an ambitious but somewhat derivative play that was elevated by McRee’s clever direction, a talented cast of theatre majors and many moments of unforgettably surreal imagery. The play was a success for Aeneid, a student theatre company at USC devoted to independently producing high quality non-musical plays at USC.

Equus’s story is unconventional and heavy, but the actors, especially leads Bhargava and Pires, more than meet the challenge. The play was an indisputable triumph for its performers, who displayed the maturity and faith in their director’s vision that is required to bring such material to life. Because the actors took the story about a boy with a fetish for horses seriously — because they flung themselves into whinnying like horses with full abandon, because they bravely exposed themselves onstage to act out a sex scene in a barn — the audience took the play seriously as well and became engrossed. The commitment of the actors was also displayed through their incredible endurance. For the play’s entire two-and-a-half hour duration, most of the actors remained onstage.

“[It was] absolutely tiring, but also incredibly energizing,” Bhargava said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “Acting is all about being present, and this was a whole new challenge for me. Being onstage for two and half hours straight forced me to really live as Martin Dysart, and that was difficult but also very rewarding.”

Equus was also a showcase for the considerable directing talents of McRee, who deftly utilized all of the tools in his arsenal to build up the play’s unsettling atmosphere. Staunchly minimalistic in his vision, the director severely limited the number of props on set in favor of pantomime; he also avoided scene changes altogether by instead directing his actors to move the existing furniture and create new settings themselves.

The result was an eerie production that conspicuously manipulated space and time in a way that allowed the lighting to dramatically come to the forefront. Equus’s imagery was truly unforgettable, and one particular scene when the stage was lit up with red and the actors charged around in horse masks was surreal, nightmarish and tremendously effective.

Unfortunately, although the execution of Equus was stellar, the script itself was rather flawed. Shaffer was undeniably ambitious, but the playwright’s attempt to cover multiple multifaceted topics such as religion, politics, sexuality and normalcy resulted in an end product that was muddled and often mired in pretension. With its inability to synthesize and fully explore its various topics, Equus ended up feeling more like a mishmash of better works, such as A Clockwork Orange, than an original piece with something unique and important to impart. The play also had an unfortunate exploitative tendency of fetishizing mental illness, and its portrayal of Strang’s psychological issues as a vessel to reach divine joy and passion had disturbing implications.

Muddled themes and pretensions aside, however, Equus truly showcased the various talents of the Aeneid Theatre. The acting was superb, the directing effective and the imagery absolutely unforgettable. Ultimately, Equus was an entertaining and compelling psychological thriller that transported its viewers into another world of dark, surreal imagery.

“Incredibly intriguing, Equus just challenges your imagination on a whole new level,” Bhargava said.