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East West Players' latest opus is the award-winning Equus: the story of a boy, his shrink and yes, some stalwart stallions. APA goes toe to toe -- or hoof to hoof, if you prefer -- with the cast.
In a city like Los Angeles, the reality is that Asian-American actors rarely get the chance to play three-dimensional leading roles that aren't specifically written for Asians. East West Players, which is celebrating its 40th-anniversary season, has always provided an outlet for these actors to shine. For instance, where else could you find Asian-American actors playing characters in David Auburn's Proof -- a play East West Players did last winter? Not in Hollywood. But, by giving us examples of this "phenomena" of Asian Americans playing normal people, East West Players dares to ask: Why not in Hollywood?
Their current production is the Tony-award winning play, Equus, written by Sir Peter Shaffer. Equus originally premiered in London in 1973. Later, it went onto Broadway, starring Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth, and eventually, it was made into a Academy Award-nominated film, starring Richard Burton. Equus tells an intense story of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (here played by legendary actor/activist George Takei), and his patient, Alan Strang (showcasing an impressive performance by Trieu Tran). The patient is a troubled teenage boy who has been institutionalized for blinding six horses with a metal spike. The play follows Dysart as he tries to uncover the reason this boy would commit such a senseless crime, and at the same time, juxtaposes the powerful explosion of the boy's tormented psyche with the psychiatrist's bottled-up restlessness over his own passive life of restraint. A notable nuance that distinguishes the play is its unique staging: the horses are portrayed by actors wearing intricate wire horse heads.
Trieu D. Tran, Cheryl Tsai, Nelson Mashita, and George Takei. (Michael Lamont)
The effect is hauntingly beautiful. In fact, Tim Dang, director of Equus and also East West Players' Producing Artistic Director, has been trying to acquire the rights to Equus for years. Finally, out of the hundreds of theaters in Los Angeles that playwright Sir Peter Shaffer could have granted the rights of his play to -- including, as Dang points out, "many non-Asian theaters who could do it well" -- Shaffer ultimately chose to give East West Players access to his play. They were honored. As a result, the David Henry Hwang Theater became the home to the first time Equus has been done professionally in Los Angeles in eight years.
For Dang, the challenge was to take a story from three decades ago, that took place in England, and to bring it to a present-day Los Angeles audience at an Asian-American theater. When asked about whether he thought about making any adjustments, Dang emphasizes the importance of Asian-Americans being seen as ordinary people. "Why couldn’t the psychiatrist be Asian? Why couldn’t the troubled boy be Asian? We certainly have all these types of characters in the Asian-Pacific community. Of course, this play takes place in England. Well, there are a lot of Asians in England, too."
The Leading Men
George Takei had always been involved with East West Players, but this is his first show that he has taken a part in. A self-professed Anglofile, Takei had always been a fan of the play, since seeing it performed by the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Tony Perkins, and one of his mentors, Richard Burton, who played Dysart in the film version of Equus. Coincidentally, Takei's own film debut, back in 1960 in the movie The Ice Palace, starred Richard Burton. Takei has very fond memories of hanging out on the set with Richard Burton, who took an interest in the young wide-eyed Asian actor and generously shared his grand stories with Takei.
Taking on the role of Dysart may have been intimidating, but Tim Dang was confident he had the right actor. "I knew that George Takei would be perfect for Dr. Dysart because he is someone that has had to live within certain norms -- as a role model, an Asian American activist and a celebrity. George has had to live according to how society perceives him. And that was perfect for Dr. Dysart." George Takei, most known and idolized by Trekkies for playing Sulu for three television seasons and six movies, has recently gained international attention in the press for coming out publicly. A respected activist, he serves on the advisory committee of the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program. He also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1986. "It's an honor and a privilege to even stand on stage with George Takei," enthuses co-star Trieu Tran. "He's an icon."
For the role of Alan Strang, they needed an actor that could portray the innocence and confusion of a young boy in despair, but also startle and blow the audience away with the strength and energy needed for the darkly intense, captivating finale. "Trieu Tran has a great sense of imagination," says Dang. "He will jump off the edge of an experience in the hopes of discovering something new. I love actors who take risks, and Trieu is one who is not afraid to try anything new or feel self-conscious about it."
Recent reviews of Equus have described Tran as "fearless" and "amazingly talented." Part of what the role required was nudity during a long, drawn-out scene where the character relives the pivotal moment where his inner demons resurface and his inability to stand the humiliation causes him to violently attack the very horses that he has a pathological love for. In fact, Tran lost weight in order to prepare for the role, to get into the mindset of the tortured, beaten down character.
As for the famous climactic nude scene, Takei points out the oddity of the fact that seeing Alan Strang and Jill Mason fully undress onstage is just as shocking and compelling as it was 30 years ago. But, according to Dang, the actors, Tran and Cheryl Tsai, had no reservations about it. They were completely comfortable and understood what the scene demanded. "The audience or society has so many hang-ups about our bodies -- being too thin, too fat. And there are a lot of hang-ups about sex, too, especially in the Asian culture. It was important to show that we have the same anatomy as anyone else and that we are no different from anyone else. Besides the show’s themes, it was important to break a lot of stereotypes about Asian men and women. Shocking, yes, but in the end, I don’t feel that it was shocking at all."
It's not an Asian story, even though one might assume so because of the cast and venue. However, at the same time, because of the cast and venue, it naturally has its distinct touches that add to their own telling of Equus.
"None of the scenes were altered from the script," says Dang. "What we did add was a rigidity to the movement, as if the characters in the play were confined to a rigidity of motion—much like how many Asian cultures have a very rigid tradition. Things are always done a certain way. The horses move a certain way. The set was made of steel which symbolizes rigidity and strength."
Each detail is carefully constructed, in attempts to preserve the Asian sensibility, but not to exoticize the play or make anything tacky or exaggerated in its "Asian-ness." When the taiko drums are brought up, Dang emphasizes its purpose and how they are integrated into the themes of the play: "There is a universal theme of rhythm. The main foundation of taiko drumming is 'the horsebeat'—and lo and behold, the play is about horses as gods."
Horses all aligned. (Michael Lamont)
In the end, the only adjustment that was made was perhaps a deliberate attempt to counter-balance the homoeroticism of the play and bring into the light a much-needed portrayal of Asian males as objects of sexual desire. "The horses were a little different is that we made them a bit more sexy than in other productions," says Dang. "The men were shirtless with harnesses to resemble horses. I wanted to show how strong and muscular and virile horses are, but also to shatter the stereotypes of the Asian-American male. Asian-American men can be strong, muscular and virile. I wanted to make them sexy, which goes well with the play’s theme of Alan Strang finding the horses sexy."
Well, what do you know? The horses were kind of hot.
A Provocative and Arresting Story
Although at first, the premise sounds a bit unusual (a mentally deranged boy obsessed with horses and the psychologist who envies this absurd passion) and some have found the Shaffer play pretentious or excessively wordy, the core issues that the play explores still resonate -- whether it's 1970 or 2005, London or LA, Hopkins and Firth or Takei and Tran. It asks what it is to be alive, what it is to be human. It examines the despair of those who live a suppressed life that is fearful or lacking or unfulfilled, and then takes us to the other extreme, to a life that is so full of soul-wrenching passion and bravery that it drives him crazy. In the end, whether you like or dislike it, you have to admit, it's a striking play.
Dysart: His pain. His own. He made it. Look . . . to go through life and call it yours – your life – you first have to get your own pain. Pain that’s unique to you. You can’t just dip into the common bin and say, “That’s enough!”
A Final Word from Tim Dang
I am just so proud of everyone on stage. It is a true ensemble. Everyone is there to support each other. That is what I love about theater. There are these special moments when everything clicks. This cast loves each other and know that each one has to do their part. Even for the horses who have to sit still for most of the show, they know that if they move, it will distract from the main part of the scene. But they all add to the beauty of the play. As I watch these performances, the show is better than the night before. It just gets better and better. Richer, deeper, fuller. Every night the actors find new emotions which adds to the texture of the play.
East West Players production of Equus runs through December 4, 2005.
For more information, go to www.eastwestplayers.org.
Date Posted: 11/15/2005