As they prepare an historic main-stage production at the Kalita Humphreys, the stars of ‘Equus’ consider the meaning behind a landmark play
PONY SHOW (NO DOG)
Kalita Humphreys Theater,
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Feb. 26â€“March 21.
Nearly everyone associated with Uptown Players’ production of Equus has a different opinion about what the play means and who it will speak to, but the chorus is in unison on one point: It is far more than the play where Harry Potter showed off his magic wand.
Equus was written nearly 40 years, but the landmark play — it ran for three years on Broadway, won the Tony Award and the film adaptation was nominated for three Oscars — was rarely revived until 18-year-old Daniel Radcliffe announced he would appear in a production, including the play’s requisite nudity.
"I tell people the play has the notoriety because of the nudity, but if you come away from it and that’s all you remember, we haven’t done our job right," says Daylon Walton (Nugget), echoing a sentiment expressed firmly by his castmates.
"I first read [the play] when it was announced Radcliffe was doing it and I thought, ‘Surely there had to be more substance than just walking around showing your penis,’" says Max Swarner, who plays the Radcliffe role in the current production. (It opens tonight at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.)
Everyone agrees on the general play. A young man named Alan Strang (Swarner) is sent to a mental hospital after blinding six horses with a metal spike. His psychiatrist, Dr. Dysart (Rick Espaillat), tries to unravel the psychosis that would lead to such a horrifying act. Beyond that, things get murky — and much of the richness of the story is revealed slowly through the characters.
So, without giving too much away, here’s what the principal male actors have learned from the show.
At 19, Max Swarner is already a long-time veteran of Dallas stages. He started at age 4 but didn’t really enjoy theater until he hit middle school, eventually being cast in Dallas Summer Musicals’ abortive production of Casper with Chita Rivera. ("It lasted four cities," he laughs.) Although he’s now a vocal performance major at SMU, acting in a shows like Equus is his passion. It’s a change of pace following stints in shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
"Roles like Equus are very few and far between — roles are not as meaty [at my age]," he notes. "I enjoy doing plays more than musicals because they take me out of my comfort zone."
Certainly the nudity contributes to that discomfort.
"It definitely requires some fearlessness and made me more fearless," he says. "I haven’t done anything like this before. And it’s not just the nudity but the nature of the role and what the character has to go through."
Swarner is the same age as the character he’s playing, although his own life isn’t nearly as dramatic (he’s lived in the same house his entire life). That lack of personal experience both intimidated and inspired him to try out for the show. (Virtually everyone else who auditioned for Alan was older.)
"Yeah, it intimidates me, but the journey that Alan takes is so incredible. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that happens in the show but it’s something that you can get lost in."
Swarner’s knowledge of Equus is more recent than Barack Obama’s national political career; for Rick Espaillat, the opportunity to do the show was a long-simmering dream — although the dream has morphed over the decades.
Espaillat first learned of the play when he was in high school — much nearer to Alan’s age than Dysart’s. He imagined playing Alan one day. But 35 years in the interim have made the role of Dysart all the more poignant to him.
"The sum total of the life experience I have accumulated in that time means that I get Dysart. So many of the lines and speeches in the show are very, very personal to me — I’m invested in this show," he says.
A lot of roads that converged to make this production special to Espaillat: Equus marks the first production on the Kalita stage not produced by the DTC; it’s Uptown’s first show in space, and there was the play itself. "Those things combined with my love for the material and that I have wanted to do this show for so long, so that the stakes are incredibly high for this production," he says.
Espaillat targeted the production as soon as it was announced. He grabbed the dog-eared copy of the play he bought in the 1970s and began doing line analysis.
"As I got closer to audition time, I actually started to memorize the text. I was more prepared for this audition than any show I’ve ever done."
Getting cast, though, filled him with a mix of elation and dread.
"There was this feeling of ‘Now what?’" he says. "Because I wanted it so badly I want to do it justice. And when you’re onstage [at the Kalita], it’s hard not to be swept up in the history of it and the energy of everybody that has come before."
But right now, Espaillat can’t think too much about the historic significance of the show. He’s concentrating instead on puzzling through the questions it raises, and how he can convey those ideas to the audience.
"For me, Dysart is asking the question, if you could take away someone’s nightmares but in the course of doing so you would take away their dreams as well, what would you do?" he says. "I really appreciate that in this play there aren’t any absolute answers. I think everyone who sees this show will have I different opinion."
Swarner might not be overly concerned about the nudity, but Daylon Walton is fairly obsessed about his physique in the show. First there are the physical demands of the role: As Nugget, the central horse, Alan "rides" him. And the physicality is important for other reasons. You might not think playing a horse who only snorts would entail a discussion of "character," but it is the title role.
"All the other guys [playing horses] are in their 20s; they have metabolisms like hummingbirds on Ritalin," Walton says. "I represent the old guys. I still need to drop a couple of pounds. My character’s motivation? Everyone else is hard and 500 people a night will be seeing me. If’ I’m gonna be a half-naked horse-god I want to look the part."
But joking — and vanity — aside, portraying a completely non-verbal character that is also a kind of god to Alan brings a certain weightiness to the role. Walton and several other horse actors went to a stable to observe actual equines in order to accurately mimic their movements.
"It would be criminal to make light of it all," Walton says. "The material’s definitely not High School Musical. I was trying to explain it to my mom because she’s used to seeing me in Beauty and the Beast." The best I can do is, it’s about a disturbed young man and his dynamic relationship with horses."
That relationship certainly creates a sense of homoeroticism that has fed much of the controversy around the play. But Walton says his experience with director Bruce Coleman and for Uptown producers Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch calmed his concerns that it would be anything but a serious enterprise.
"Uptown takes chances. Living in a Red State, they do shows that are a little outside the spectrum. And Bruce is so damn good at what he does, that this is not a play about naked people — that’s one aspect of the story."
Walton perhaps oversells its broad appeal — "It’s good clean Christian fun. Bring your whole family!" he chuckles — but at one level he does believe that the play needs to reach as many people as possible. And it doesn’t require Harry Potter to make it soar.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 26, 2010.