Monday, July 12, 2010

Anything but simple

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

It has been a while since I watched a Repertory Philippines play—the last one was Tuesdays with Morrie many seasons ago. I went with a friend who had been absent from the theater scene even longer than I have been—he said he last watched a stage play when Repertory Philippines was still mounting productions at the Shangrila Edsa Mall, which was like a decade or so ago. Understandably, both of us had some expectations.

In addition, Equus is not your ordinary, typical, run-of-the-mill play. It got global attention when Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame took on the role of Alan Strang in the 2007 revival of the play. Actually, I think it really was the fact that he took on a role that required being stark raving naked onstage for ten minutes or so that made people stand up and take notice of the play.

We knew there was going to be nudity. We’ve seen the clips on YouTube showing Radcliffe prancing around in his birthday suit. Besides we were practically hit on the head repeatedly with the warning about the “sensitive nature of the play” (euphemism in this country for cussing and nudity) before we entered the theater, while waiting for the play to begin, and during the intermission. And it’s a sad reflection of the overall maturity and discipline of Filipino audiences when production companies are compelled to repeatedly announce over the public address system that taking pictures was not allowed during the play, along with the warning that anyone caught doing so would be escorted out of the venue. One wishes Repertory people were as conscientious about not allowing people to enter the venue once the play had gotten started, or at least ensuring that those who were late did so as unobtrusively as possible, but no cigar.

Those expecting to have an easy time while watching this version of Equus are in for a disappointment. The premise of the play is disturbing although quite enthralling. A boy commits a bizarre and inexplicable crime—he blinds six horses in one night; he doesn’t maim them or kill them, he simply blinds them. Instead of having the boy locked up in jail, a compassionate judge puts him under the care of a psychiatrist. The play then proceeds to unlock the mystery behind the crime and how the psychiatrist ultimately succeeds in exorcising the boy from whatever it is that afflicts him. This summary makes the play come across as a simple whodunit. Equus is anything but simple.

In fact, Equus is so complex that halfway through the play I actually made a conscious effort to just focus on the production and to stop trying to pursue in my mind the subtexts that harkened Freudian theories (everything has to do with the libido), the ethical dilemmas of Psychiatry (when psychiatrists “normalize” behaviors and subdue the unbridled passion and creativity of their patients, are they really “healing” people or simply muffling their zest for life?), the debate between psychology and spirituality (are our problems psychological or spiritual?), the dangers of religious dogma, the great chasm between carnality and theology and yet the thin line between devotion and obsession and between fantasy and reality, the irrelevance of sexual orientation in analyzing sexual dysfunctions, etc. Whew.

Along the way, the play deftly tackles parenting and sexuality (yes, those who are riveted in the raging sex education modules controversy will find some parallels in this play), crime and justice, psychiatric methods and the demons that haunt psychiatrists, trust and betrayal, truth and fantasy, shame and pain, and ultimately, repression and liberation. Here we have a self-tormented psychiatrist, an emotionally damaged boy, dysfunctional parents, and six horses pulsing with raw sexuality.

The mélange is a potent brew that threatens to go haywire at any moment. It’s a miracle the play works. On one level, Equus is basically a suspense story about a bizarre crime. But it’s also a psychological treatise about character and motive. And yes, it’s also about sexual awakening although I feel compelled to warn people—who, based on commentaries in various social networking sites and blogs, seem to have the idea that Equus is about people rolling naked in hay —that the nudity in the play is so natural one has to be a pervert to be engrossed over it. Now, the erotic scenes between the boy and the horses are another thing, though, and they aren’t naked in those scenes. While having a quick dinner after the play, I asked my friend if he could describe what the actors looked like naked and he laughed hard because he said he couldn’t remember.

I watched the play on opening night and the role of the conflicted boy (Alan Strang) was played by Red Concepcion. The play is about Strang but the main protagonist in the play is Dr. Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist, played by Repertory veteran actor Miguel Faustmann. Concepcion as Strang turns in a competent performance. Although he seemed tentative in the beginning and tended to overact in some scenes, he was convincing in his portrayal of a deeply disturbed boy. The fact that we could empathize with him despite the crime ascribed to him and his attempts to block Dysart’s efforts to help him in the beginning was proof of Concepcion’s promise as an actor. Unfortunately, he seemed a little inhibited (opening night jitters perhaps, or the fact that it seemed like a whole caboodle of friends came to watch him that night as evidenced by the cheering that greeted him at curtain call) his climax scenes came off not as visually exhilarating, liberating, or celebratory.

Faustmann, of course, was in full throttle. He essayed the role of a disillusioned psychiatrist and narrator (his role required him to act like a solo Greek chorus who talked to the audience at some parts) so superbly he was utterly convincing in the parts where he had to unravel the layers of deception spun by his patient and could see the images he described—I could see in my mind the wife he had been unable to kiss in six years!

The two had very able support from a host of actors among them Roselyn Perez, Tami Monsod, Jaime del Mundo, and Phoena Baranda. The dynamics between Strang’s parents that proved pivotal to his condition was so palpable in del Mundo and Monsod’s interpretation. Baranda was beguiling but sadly, either her microphone wasn’t working properly on opening night or she was just delivering her lines too softly she came across as whispering her lines all throughout the play.

A powerful presence in the play were the six horses played by actors. It’s unthinkable to imagine that actors could convince audiences to think of them as horses—but they did. The actor that played the horse Nugget was utterly convincing he was able to distinguish himself from the others.

Director Audie Gemora chose to stage Equus more as an intimate psychological drama (more emphasis on the drama) than as a suspense thriller or a big philosophical or social treatise on say, morality or redemption. We wished it had elements that allowed the audience to celebrate with the characters but Gemora chose to keep the staging as true as possible to the primary text. Nevertheless, watching Equus was still a deeply rewarding and fulfilling experience. You should go watch it.

Equus opened last Friday at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati. It will continue to play on the next two weekends at 8 p.m., with matinee shows at 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.


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