Friday, December 2, 2016

Repressed, Bothered, and Bewildered

Memories (good and bad alike) often get kicked under the proverbial rug. Some get buried in our subconscious and, if we're lucky, stay there. Unless, of course, they find a way to surface in our dreams.

During a recent Facebook discussion about Anne Rice, I mentioned that I had interviewed the celebrated author many years ago when she was living on 17th Street, just a few blocks from my apartment. At the time, Anne had just published Cry to Heaven and Jerry Douglas (the editor of Stallion Magazine) was hot to publish a piece about her. Anne's house was just a few doors down from the apartment where my friend Jerry Semas lived. Although Jerry moved to Los Angeles years later, changed his name, and worked as a publicist in the entertainment field, he died earlier this year. Somehow or other, he showed up in a recent dream looking like a character straight out of Charles Dickens.

I woke up. The dream was over.

For others, recurring dreams and nightmares can be much more traumatic. Are they merely dreams or the the shattered remnants of a person's life? Is there any way to make the horrors and torment disappear? For some lucky people, psychotherapy can help. Others, alas, are doomed to a life of self-doubt, alienation, despair, and loneliness.

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During its recent program of six short plays, Left Coast Theatre staged Erica Andracchio's tense mini-drama entitled Los Angeles. No doubt inspired by tales about the Church of Scientology, the play starred Andracchio as Nora, a lonely woman who met a new friend at church but soon found herself entering a Twilight Zone-kind of existence. One day, while talking Bianca (Eliza Boivin), she felt a frisson that might have indicated a stronger emotional bond -- or even some sexual interest.

Eliza Boivin (Bianca) and Erica Andracchio (Nora) in a
scene from Los Angeles (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

That moment of intimacy did not go unnoticed. Soon, Nora found herself under surveillance by one of the church's guards (Karl Schackne) as word of her potential for deviance spread to those in positions of power. As more members of the church became suspicious of Nora's motives and beliefs, she ended up in a civil form of isolated confinement.

Erica Andracchio (Nora) and her guard (Karl Schackne)
in a scene from Los Angeles (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

As directed by Richard S. Sargent, the audience was left wondering if Bianca had turned Nora in to the church's authorities  as a result of her own internalized homophobia or if Nora was about to be deported by a powerful, cult-like church with strong political connections. Nora's story was a nightmare come true.

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The mysteries of the mind -- and mind control -- have long fascinated mankind. From primitive rituals to organized religion, indoctrination and domination are key forces used to keep people meek and obedient. While Karl Marx famously claimed that "religion is the opiate of the masses," hypnosis often achieves more precise and carefully targeted results.
  • In 1920's silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Werner Krauss portrays a demented hypnotist who uses his skill to direct a sleepwalker to commit various murders.
  • In Noel Coward's beloved 1941 comedy, Blithe Spirit (which was the basis for 1964's Broadway musical, High Spirits), Madame Arcati is an eccentric woman who has been passing herself off as a local clairvoyant. One night, she makes a ghostly connection with a client's deceased wife. Havoc quickly ensues.
  • In their 1965 musical entitled On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane's protagonist was a young woman who, desperate to stop smoking in order to please her boyfriend, went to a hypnotist for help. Easily susceptible to hypnosis, Daisy Gamble soon revealed herself to have lived several past lives. The hypnotist's problem was that. in order to converse with the woman he had fallen in love with (who had died several centuries ago), he had to keep putting his patient under hypnosis.
  • In the popular 2001 comedy film, Zoolander, Ben Stiller portrayed an airhead male fashion model who is brainwashed at the direction of powerful people within the fashion industry to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia (whose progressive policies could threaten the use of cheap labor upon which the fashion industry's profits depend).
  • In David Tristram's 2007 thriller, Hypnosis, a mild-mannered policeman is randomly chosen from the audience to be the next stooge by The Great Gordo (an alcoholic stage hypnotist in the twilight of his career).
For many, the most chilling portrayal of hypnosis at work is the following scene from 1962's The Manchurian Candidate in which the evil Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) uses the Queen of Diamonds as a trigger to hypnotize her son, Raymond (Laurence Harvey). She then tells him how to carry out a political assassination.

Bending someone's mind to do your dirty work requires a certain amount of malice aforethought. But how does a person who has committed an unspeakable act of violence get cured of the guilt and horror he feels? How do a series of ghastly images get excised from his mind?

In 1973, British playwright Peter Shaffer wrote Equus, a controversial play about a young man who, in a fit of unimaginable violence, blinded six horses one night. When a judge brings the case to Dr. Martin Dysart, a clinical psychotherapist who may well be the boy's last hope, the older man is confronted with the painful contrast between Alan Strang's ability to live out his fantasies and how his own imagination has become ossified. The 1977 film adaptation starred Richard Burton and Peter Firth.

The original Broadway production ran for 1,209 performances (word of mouth about Act II's nude scene helped to stimulate box office sales). In 2007, the play was revived with Richard Griffiths as Dysart and Daniel Radcliffe as Strang. In the following clip, Radcliffe talks about his experiences when Harry Potter fans simply couldn't contain themselves.

In the play, Alan Strang presents as a paranoid young man who suffers from intense nightmares, is addicted to television, and responds to any questions from authority figures by singing advertising jingles. However, as Dysart starts to gain Alan's trust, it becomes obvious that what Strang was doing before the incident (sneaking out at night to worship horses and ride them while naked) was the exact kind of raw passion and fantasy fulfillment that Dysart craves but can only satisfy through his knowledge of ancient Greek civilization and yearly trips to the Mediterranean, where he visits the historic sites he has fantasized about.

It's interesting to see how audiences have changed since Equus premiered with Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth heading the cast. More than 40 years later, audiences have become a lot more sophisticated and developed a greater understanding of mental health issues and, in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder. During the past four decades, Shaffer's play has proven to be extremely popular with university theatre departments and small regional theatre companies. It requires a relatively small cast (some of which can double up on small roles), simple scenery, and provides an excellent opportunity for a young male actor to have a breakthrough experience in a most challenging role.

Morgan Lange as Alan Strang in Equus (Photo by: David Wilson)

San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros (the world's oldest LGBT theatre company) recently unveiled a new production of Equus in which the company's artistic director, John Fisher, portrayed Dr. Dysart and also directed the play. In his program note, Fisher wrote:
"When Peter Shaffer died this summer it was officially revealed that he was gay and had shared his life with a partner. Sir Peter had written about gay men in his early plays Five Finger Exercise, White Liars, and Black Comedy, and the queerness of these plays was not incidental, it was core to the stories. His famous plays (The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, and Amadeus) are more homosocial than homosexual. A commercial playwright and a man of his time, he seems to have chosen to remain in the closet both on and off-stage. But there are gay undercurrents, especially in Equus where the doctor's frustration with his own marriage and his longing for the boy's experiences echo the boy's own sexual outsider status and awkward socialization. Rather than push the play further in the direction of gayness, we've tried to play it 'straight.' In other words, we've let the text's inherent homosexuality remain present just as I have always felt the playwright's homosexual concern was always present."
Alan Strang (Morgan Lange) and Dr. Dysart (John Fisher)
in a scene from Equus (Photo by: David Wilson)

Working on a unit set designed by Gilbert Johnson with costumes by Daisy Neske and lighting by Sean Keehan, Fisher has done an exemplary job with Shaffer's script. Not only has he pulled beautiful performances from Iris Haas-Biel as Jill (the young woman who seduces Alan in the stables); Ann Lawler (who portrays Hesther the judge), Alan's mother, and a nurse); he has drawn a series of achingly poignant profiles from Rudy Guerrero, who appears as Alan's father, the stable owner, Dalton, a horseman, and the lead horse, Nugget.

Rudy Guerrero as Mr. Strang in a scene from Equus
(Photo by: David Wilson)
The evening's strongest performance comes from Morgan Lange,  a former member of A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory, who is making his professional theatrical debut in this production. Under Fisher's guidance, Lange does a creditable job of moving from the sullen, defensive Alan to the moments in which he is young, innocent, and enraptured by his first encounter with a horse.

More than ever, one becomes acutely aware of the beauty of the monologues that Shaffer has crafted for Dysart and Strang. They reveal the essence of theatrical storytelling, guiding the audience through a tense and often heartbreaking narrative with a keen eye toward a potentially bleak future for Alan that is devoid of the wild passion he has shared with a horse named Nugget.

The difference, of course, is that in a live performance the camera is not moving around, creating a cinematic flow. The audience -- especially in the intimacy of the 200-seat Eureka Theatre -- is glued to their seats, their attention focused on the actors as they nervously follow in Dysart's manipulative footsteps while he leads Alan through hypnosis to a new and quieter kind of freedom.

Morgan Lange as Alan Strang in Equus (Photo by: David Wilson) 

Performances of Equus continue through December 10 at the Eureka Theatre (click here for tickets).

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