Theater archives

Equus, The Tempest, and The Glass Cage—Old Texts That Need Some Old-Style Theatrical Flair


The cherries that grew in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, the old butler Firs tells the younger generation, were formerly made into jam, but over the years, the recipe somehow got lost. I often think old plays have the same problem: The tasty condiment they once provided onstage now often comes out savorless. The recipe’s disappeared, and nobody knows how to retrieve it. Strict historical authenticity gives you pedantic staleness; total freedom tends to produce a weird-tasting contemporary ick; steering moderately between those extremes results in something bland and viscous, not at all the tangy-sweet cherry jam you were dreaming of. That dish is only available in your imagination or your memory.

Peter Shaffer’s 1974 play Equus poses a particular challenge in revival because it was already a mixed dish of debatable quality. John Dexter’s original production—cold, sharp, and riveting—had a lot to do with its initial success. The wire-sculpture heads that John Napier designed for the play’s “horses” inspired many jokes back then: I never dreamed I’d miss them till I saw Thea Sharrock’s new production, also designed by Napier. The translucent, quasi-realistic sculpted horse heads here suggest artsy samples of Steuben glassware, perfectly matching the rest of the design, which has the tony austerity of a decorator’s showroom.

Shaffer’s drama mixes a savory piece of psychiatric melodrama with some suspicious-smelling reflections on its meaning. Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe), the disturbed teenage son of a deeply riven marriage, has committed a hideous, inexplicable act: blinding six horses. Yet horses are apparently all he loves. A sympathetic judge (Kate Mulgrew) assigns a shrink, Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths), to discover what drove him to it. What Dysart learns, played out gradually in flashback as he steadily induces the closed-off Alan to lower his guard, constitutes the melodrama, many scenes of which are powerfully effective. But as Alan’s revelations deepen, Dysart—a burnt-out case in both his profession and his marriage—becomes increasingly envious, causing a lot of showy soliloquies about how violently disturbed lunatics are emotionally superior to ordinary, inhibited people whose lives have gone dead.

The essential hogwash (not to be confused with Hogwarts) of this glib comparison gets further muddling from the play’s dodgy treatment of key matters like sanity and legality. Dysart keeps asserting that he will “cure” Alan and return him to “normal” life, which he ultimately views as a tragic loss. But psychotherapy doesn’t “cure” people, except on Broadway (was Shaffer remembering Kim Stanley in A Far Country?), and we never learn precisely what the judge has appointed Dysart to do: gauge Alan’s sanity, estimate whether his condition makes him a danger to society, or take him on permanently as a patient. The possible penalties Alan faces for his crime also remain nebulous, but a humdrum suburban existence probably isn’t one of them; you don’t get that in Dartmoor.

The hogwash taints Sharrock’s production particularly because Griffiths, a capable actor hopelessly miscast, never suggests a man whose inner discontent is constantly gnawing at him. On the contrary: Griffiths’s placidly adipose Santa Claus of a shrink seems to have done far too much gnawing himself. Sharrock’s weak hand at shaping performances is confirmed by the supporting cast, no two of whom appear to be in the same play. Only Carolyn McCormick as Alan’s mother and Lorenzo Pisoni as his favorite horse offer the crisp, forceful clarity that Shaffer’s script demands.

And only Radcliffe supplies the vital ingredient of which Equus, unhappily, requires two full portions: the commanding stage presence of a star. His quiet, recalcitrant Alan, eschewing the feral sullenness that made Peter Firth, in the original, excitingly scary to watch, builds ultimately to a creepier height of near-total dislocation. Hewing tautly to the play’s dramatic line, Radcliffe makes the cornball “atmospherics” (stage fog, throbbing music) with which Sharrock surrounds him seem all the more ludicrous.

Very little in Brian Kulick’s production of The Tempest, at Classic Stage Company, seems ludicrous. The trouble, in this most complexly playful of plays, is how much seems heavy-handedly earnest. Mandy Patinkin’s Prospero bullies Angel Desai’s Ariel so gruffly that you might think Shakespeare had written a tract about supernatural labor-management relations. Desai sings charmingly, when allowed, but overall the production is as unmusical as it is sternly unmagical. And in speaking, Patinkin is often the worst offender, roaring at top speed and blurring his asides into his dialogue while he flaps his arms like an elasticized windmill. Elizabeth Waterston makes an appealing but vocally hopeless Miranda, and Stark Sands a tolerable Ferdinand; the court of Prospero’s enemies comes off well, particularly Michael Potts’s Alonzo and Craig Baldwin’s Sebastian; and Stephen Rattazzi is that rarity—a genuinely funny Stephano. But Kulick leans heavily on the comic scenes, with Nyambi Nyambi giving a ponderous, one-note rendering of Caliban—presented, in the usual boring p.c. manner, as a victim of Prospero’s colonialism.

J.B. Priestley’s The Glass Cage, written in 1957 for a trio of Canadian actor-siblings who were founding a theater, has never been presented here. The reasons are all too readily apparent, although its script takes a few intriguing turns along its plotty way, and Lou Jacob’s production at the Mint offers some arresting performances, notably Saxon Palmer as the most earthily nasty of the three half-Romani siblings who intrude on the stuffy Victorian secretiveness of their bourgeois Toronto relatives. By 1957, Priestley had been working this Ibsenite vein for a quarter-century, and his patterns had gotten predictable. If you know Dangerous Corner or An Inspector Calls, you can guess most of the surprises well in advance, though the quasi-mystical echoes of T.S. Eliot’s then-popular plays spice things up. Still, even in its carbon-copy quality, The Glass Cage carries the substance of the bygone theater it sprang from; it’s worth seeing as a reminder of what we’ve unwisely tossed aside. Roger Hanna’s set and Lindsay Jones’s music contribute importantly to the production’s sustained effect.