reviewed by Larry Adams
“In a way, it has nothing to do with the boy.” – Dr. Dysart, Equus
Back in high school, on a class trip to New York City, a friend of mine received special permission to leave the group and watch a Broadway show called Equus. At the time, all I knew about it was that it had a horse, a naked guy, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Such is the profundity of youth. My youth, anyway. It would require several decades of maturity and a trip to the Fountain Square cultural district of Indianapolis on a beautiful summer evening for me to appreciate- rather, begin to appreciate- the emotional and conceptual depth of this truly stunning modern classic.
In 1973, inspired by a bizarre real-life incident in England in which a young stable hand blinded several horses under his care, playwright Peter Shaffer set about imagining a fictional encounter between the boy and his court-appointed psychiatrist. Somehow, from that quite specific and unusual springboard, Shaffer subsequently managed to create one of the most thematically complex and universally relatable dramas ever to grace a stage. This is the magic of great theater. You see, Equus is ultimately not about the horses, or the horrific act of violence, or even the fascinating and intimate interplay between doctor and patient. Indeed, “in a way, it has nothing to do with the boy.” Good theater would take those elements and create an interesting and entertaining story, because that’s what good theater does: it entertains. Great theater, however, either proclaims the Universal Truths of Life or asks the Great Questions. Equus is great theater.
Weaving a virtually seamless tapestry over the course of the play, Shaffer ingeniously intertwines threads of madness and normality, love and sterility, passion and enslavement- all under a thematic umbrella that is unusual for theater, and yet among the most basic motifs in human existence and experience: worship. “Without worship, you shrink. It’s as brutal as that,” Shaffer’s psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart declares, recognizing even in the damagingly self-constructed theology of his patient, young Alan Strang, a passion he himself sorely lacks and desperately desires in his ordered life and loveless marriage. The idea of worship, or at least passion for something beyond the mundane of everyday existence if you like, suffuses nearly every aspect of Shaffer’s show, from the conflict between Strang’s rigidly Christian mother and just as rigidly atheist father, to the horses themselves, at every step portrayed metaphorically and even literally as powerful, all-seeing and godlike. “Religion! Religion’s at the bottom of all this!” Alan’s father, Frank, insists. Indeed, it is.
Casey Ross’s masterful direction and conceptual design wisely plays up this theme in the current production. The setting of the production itself, an old brick church now known as Grove Haus, instantly sensitizes the audience to the framework of the show, and her placement of the “horse chorus” under a stained glass window on what must have been in years past the raised chancel of the church brings to mind mute priests looking down in judgement upon the action taking place on the floor of the nave. Actors often rise and sit silently in stone-faced unison, suggesting the ritual of a somber religious service, and the rich lighting scheme also seems designed to project a feeling of mystical awe over the proceedings. Even the pre- and intra-show music selections, often ignored by both audiences and directors alike, serve to set and underscore the quasi-religious tone of the piece. This is the first Casey Ross production I have had the pleasure to see, but, with her keen theatrical instincts and close attention to detail, it will not be the last.
CRP’s production of “Equus” stars Brian G. Hartz (left) as Dr. Dysart, and Taylor Cox as Alan Strang.
A play as complex as Equus cannot possibly succeed without top tier acting, and in this, Ms. Ross’s cast does not disappoint; there is not a single weak link in the chain. The bulk of the show rests squarely on the shoulders of Dr. Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist and the narrator of the show, played with the necessary strength and gravitas by Brian G. Hartz. Dysart provides the internal psychological tension of the piece, as he gradually begins to agonize over whether he is really curing his patients or merely psychologically castrating them and forcing the bit of conformity into their mouths, metaphorically sacrificing their passion and uniqueness (as a recurring dream hammers home perhaps a bit too bluntly) on the altar of societal normality. Hartz impressively- and surely exhaustingly- carries this burden throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show, never leaving the stage, though occasionally acting only as an observer to Alan’s acted out flashbacks. In addition, Shaffer has saddled him with the great majority of the monologues, as well as nearly all of the plethora of quotable lines in Equus. If I have to pick at something (and, despite what you’ve read so far, I am supposed to be a critic), I might suggest that the gravity of the role, as well as the intensity of the monologues and even the British accent, occasionally pull Hartz to the brink of overacting, with grand gestures and inflections of speech that might be better suited for a large proscenium stage rather than the intimate, in-your-face setting of this theater in the round; however, Hartz for the most part resists this temptation, and in the end is nothing short of astounding in the role. His performance in fact left me, as an occasional and definitively amateur actor, in a love- hate relationship with the role: I would love to play it, but would hate the fact that I could never hope to play it as well.
Taylor Cox plays Alan Strang, the emotionally unstable stable boy whose disturbing act of violence sets the story in motion. The role of Alan requires the most emotional range, nuance and lability of the show, and Cox handles this with a natural air that is beyond extraordinary. In the course of minutes, Cox can be charming, weird, likable, scary, shy, belligerent, childlike, menacing, arrogant, confused, triumphant and defeated- and make the audience believe every single one. Subtle changes of expression and manner, especially when he is reacting rather than speaking, evidence an actor who is totally immersed in his character and the moment, every moment. It is a performance not to be missed.
The cast of “Equus” includes Ericka Barker (left) and Doug Powers (right) as the parents of Alan Strang, played by Taylor Cox (center).
The supporting actors (Allison Clark Reddick, Sarah McGrath, Doug Powers, Tony Armstrong, Johnny Mullens and Nan Macy) are, to a person, worthy of professional theater, but one performance stands out for me: Ericka Barker as Alan’s mother, Dora. Though her rapid and clipped speech (a choice, I presume, befitting her rigidly religious character) sometimes make her difficult to understand when turned away or blocked by another character (an unavoidable hazard of theater in the round), Barker’s turn at Dora’s final monologue is outstanding, fleshing out her character and making human and relatable (at least for all us parents) what easily could have been a stock religious stereotype.
A word of appreciation also for the “horse chorus” of Bowie Foote, Christopher Bell, Beth Clark and, at times, the aforementioned Johnny Mullens: these are exceedingly small roles when measured purely in lines and action, but I cannot overemphasize their importance to the effect of the show. Towering over the proceedings like the silent and judgmental gods Alan- and eventually even Dysart- perceive them to be, their presence informs and shapes our perception of everything that happens on the stage. Simply put: Bravo. And as for the horse designer, Dianna Mosedale: How do you make a man or woman in a horse head costume look not silly, but instead menacing, powerful and implacable? That’s how.
And apparently no review of Equus can be complete without mentioning the nudity. If you are contemplating bringing children, or are easily offended yourself, you are forewarned: It’s there, and it is neither brief nor tempered. I suspect this is the main reason you so rarely see a community theater production of such an outstanding work. I personally feel the show could still be quite effective without it, and thus be more accessible to the community theater stage, though I’m sure many- including the playwright, if he were still with us- would probably differ. But know this also: it is not gratuitous, it serves a purpose, and it is effective. If you think the kids- and you- can handle it, I would set that issue aside.
Looking back, I wish the teenage me in New York City could have seen that Broadway production of Equus, but I doubt he could have fully appreciated it. As a friend of mine remarked, “I think you have to life a bit to understand it.” I cannot imagine, however, that even a Broadway production could outshine what this talented group of actors and crew has brought to the Indianapolis stage. Rarely do I consider seeing a show twice, but you just may see me there again next week, searching for things I missed, considering its messages a little bit more, and simply allowing it to wash over me rather than dissecting it for a review. I hope many of you also will take advantage of what seems to be a rare chance to experience Equus.
A Post Scriptum: It was bittersweet to see the show dedicated to the memory of David Ballard, actor and friend to the Indianapolis theater community. I did not know David long or well- but well enough to know he would have been touched by this gesture and honored to have his name associated with such a brilliant example of the best that community theater- indeed, any theater- has to offer.
Casey Ross Productions’ EQUUS continues July 17, 22, 23 & 24 – Curtain: Fri-Sat @ 8 PM / Sun @ 5 PM – TICKETS $25 – Presented at Fountain Square’s Grove Haus – 1001 Hosbrook St., Indianapolis IN. For tickets go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2555627
*Recommended for ages 16+, due to nudity, violence, and strong language.