LOOK TO EACH OTHER: Humanity exposed.
When aborigines first encountered colonialists’ horses, according to Alan Strang’s mother, they believed that horse and rider were one being. This strange unity, it seemed to them, could be nothing less than god. When they did finally realize where creature left off and human began, it was only because of a man’s fall. In an auto-mythic sense, it is both this fall and this unity that haunt Alan (Ian Carlsen, magnificently), a troubled 17-year-old for whom the archetype of the horse is both master and slave, sexual and sacred. “Equus,” his word for the deity, is also the title of a ferocious and beautiful play by Peter Schaffer, produced gloriously by the University of Southern Maine under the direction of Walter Stump.
The nature of Alan’s charged relationship with horses is a matter that we unearth, via flashback, along with his state-assigned psychologist, Martin Dysart (John Coons, with intelligence and ardor). Alan is in his custody after having committed a rather mythically ravishing atrocity: In the stables where he works, he has blinded seven horses with a steel spike. But true to the tradition of the psycho-analytic drama, Alan’s distress has a foil. As Dysart fields the boy’s parents (Mary Batoni and Jeffrey Toombs, excellent in comedy and trauma alike) and plays anthropologist to his fraught mythology (which draws lithely on children’s horse stories, his mum’s Book of Job, proper British “equitation,” and those amazed aborigines) he finds a vitality, long missing from his own life, that haunts him. Will the human “why” of this matter, a psychologist’s stand-in for divinity, be sufficient — let alone transcendent? Or is something lost when one tries to account for the unaccountable? The tale of Alan, as recalled by Dysart, is thus both a mystery story and a story about mystery.
Imagery is primal and unsettlingly beautiful in the hands of the show’s fine designers. From long chains above Brian Hapcic’s set hang scores of pieces of riding tack, some of gleaming steel, some dark and rusty. At the ends of the chains, the suspended shapes of the tools — arched lines, right angles, oval eyelets — have the look of symbols, cryptic yet familiar, like the characters of a language we don’t understand, yet intuitively know. Also hanging are the masks of the show’s spirits — horse heads, elegantly and sparsely designed of copper by Kate Law.
When worn by actors, who emerge on burnished hooves to slip them on, the masks become central to the enchanting, sometimes terrifying stagecraft of Equus. Directed by Kate Caouette and John Coons, the horses offer both a sort of dramatic omniscience and the essential comfort of creatures: They punctuate and pace the action of Alan’s revelations by the percussion of their hooves; they also affectingly nuzzle, idle, and paw at the ground. The choreography of the rapport between humans and horses is stunning, and as we watch Alan and co-worker Jill (Autumn Rose, nimbly and sweetly) stroke these beasts, we witness a focused affection — and, indeed, a worship — that it is rare to see humans perform outside of the bed.