A boy and his horses

“Equus” sets its sights on sex, faith and psychotherapy

Greg Corradini

Presidential incumbent George W. Bush won’t be the scariest thing in St. Paul this September.

Starting Gate Productions begins its third season with Peter Shaffer’s menacing “Equus,” a story about random violence and horse worship. Yes, horse worship.

Shaffer is known best for his play “Amadeus” and the screenplay he wrote for the

motion picture of the same name.

“Equus,” like “Amadeus,” revolves around jealousy. In “Amadeus,” Mozart’s genius spurs the envy of his less-talented contemporary, Salieri. The same dynamic relationship between two characters erupts in “Equus.”

Martin Dysart (Jim Pounds) narrates the action in “Equus” during a creative impasse in his life.

Part Greek scholar and part romantic, Martin feels that his talent as a child psychotherapist has been squandered. He has nightmares in which he sacrifices children to pagan gods. His profession, he feels, is dangerously close to exploitation.

In his newest patient, Dysart doesn’t see a problem child at all.

Alan Strang (Jim Halloran) is a brilliant and imaginative boy. In his 17 years on earth,

he has created a religion dedicated to horses and the horse-god, Equus. He is the only follower.

In rituals of religious ecstasy, Strang rode horses naked at night. During these rides he often invoked biblical psalms or sucked horse must off manes. He and the horse spirit became as one.

When Strang stabs the eyes out of six horses, the authorities hand him over to Martin Dysart to analyze and cure.

But Martin Dysart is flat out jealous.

In comparison to Strang’s mythos, Martin Dysart’s life and aspirations are dull fodder for consideration.

Male vigilance in “Equus” presents actors with an

opportunity to really perform. Rising to the task like boxers, Pounds and Holleran carve a relationship where passion and voyeurism roil beneath the play’s subtext.

Typically, a play with a minimalist set, director Richard Jackson has gone far beyond restraint for maximum pagan effect.

Greek columns line the back of the stage and stone benches stand in the foreground. A marble altar sits in the middle. Against the back wall, like judges, sit six silent, strapping young men in tight leotards.

At times, the men don horse masks and act out the role of the horses, a feature that gives Strang’s lustful relationship with them a deep sexual undertone.

Repressed sexuality throbs at the center of this play. Constantly threatening to unleash itself on our unprepared bodies, the tensions at work in “Equus” are more troubling than mere reality.