Where: Marshall High School, 7732 Leesburg Pike
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 13–Saturday, Nov. 15;
3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 16
Tickets: $5-$7 at the door
To prepare for “Equus,” a “whydunnit” about a boy who blinds seven horses for reasons that are initially unfathomable, the 17-member cast of Marshall High School’s fall play visited Shady Brook Stable in McLean to observe horses and their behavior up close.
Marshall theater teacher Mark Krikstan said he wanted the students who play horses to approach their roles just as if they were portraying humans.
“From their vantage point, an actor has to do the same kind of work they would have to do if they were playing another human being: Get inside the character, explore how they react to stimulus, feel their muscles, move like they move, and ultimately, try to think like they think,” Krikstan said.
“For those seven, it was essential they spend some good quality time with horses.”
Shady Brook owner Jim Moss provided the mounts, instruction, and time for the actors to groom, ride and communicate with the school horses that are used for lessons.
A former Falls Church High School teacher, Moss donated three hours of instructional time on his school horses to the Marshall students, most of them uninitiated in equine behavior and stable etiquette.
IN THE PLAY, Marshall student Matt Hall plays Alan Strang, the boy who blinds the horses. Both character and actor are 17.
Although he is passionate about horses, Strang inexplicably blinds seven of them. As the characters in the play probe Alan Strang’s psyche, they discover that “he feels he has betrayed the horses by establishing a relationship with a young girl at the stable,” Krikstan says. “He feels the horses have judged him, and finds himself striking back at them.”
In real life, Krikstan said, Hall describes himself as “horse-phobic.”
“It was important for him to get close, and lose some of that fear,” Krikstan said. “He got up on the horse, and rode around on it.
“By the end of the three hours [at the stable], he seemed more relaxed and was able to relate to a character that is so passionately tied to the animal that he is unable to distinguish between the horse and the mythological characters that inhabit his imagination.”
Before he rode at Shady Brook, Hall said, “I had no sense” of what horses feel like, and think. Riding allowed him “to feel where your legs are, to feel how the muscle moves underneath you, and get a sense for the way Alan Strang feels about horses,” Hall said. “It explains his obsession.”
When Cochise, the white horse he rode at Shady Brook, got spooked, Hall said, “It gave me a sense of how powerful the animal is, and its personality and spirit.”
In his first lead role at Marshall, sophomore Daniel Chestnutt plays psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who probes for answers to explain Strang’s behavior. He said the visit to the stable taught him a lot
“I learned a lot about the way a horse acts, in a herd and in their family groups, who is the strongest horse, and who is the leader,” Chestnut said. Two days before opening night, he said, “I think the characters are being developed well, and it’s flowing pretty well. The stage is cool, and the music’s good. It’s kind of eerie.”
The music was written, performed and recorded by former Marshall student Peter van Valkenburgh. He also plays several different instruments in the recorded music.
“Equus” was written by Peter Shaffer. It was produced in London in 1974 and in New York in 1976. Shaffer also wrote “Amadeus,” the play Marshall produced last fall.
“It is like a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy,” Krikstan said. “It’s a challenging piece of theater. It is meant to be gripping, and it is.”
“It’s a wonderful show. It’s great literature, and the kids have done a remarkable job with it.”