You Need To See “Equus”

Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” may be outdated psychiatrically but it remains a great bit of theater because of the story and its conflict.  It’s a conflict between psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Vincent O’Neill) and disturbed young patient Alan Strang (PJ Tighe).

Strang has been sent to his second-rate psychiatric hospital in Southern England by a local magistrate, Hesther Salomon (Wendy Hall), who sits on the board of the hospital.

Strang has apparently gone into a local stable and blinded all six horses, a horrific event in the small town and Dysart recognizes this is well beyond the usual crowd which has overwhelmed and ground down his performance and abilities.

It takes time for Dysart to wade through his own troubled marriage and his fixation on classic Greece to discover Alan isn’t just screwed-up, he’s really screwed-up.

It’s only when he meets parents Frank (Gregory Gjurich) and Dora (Margaret Massman) that the shrink begins to understand the roots of Alan’s problems, heavily in the religious divide between his parents.

This is psycho-sexual dysfunction, allied with his job taking care of horses and taking care of Jill Mason (Kelsey Mogensen), the young and beautiful daughter of a stable owner.

Only when we watch those two in a dark and shadowy and naked scene under Brian Cavanagh’s lighting, accompanied by Tom Makar’s creepy sound design, do we begin to understand how deranged Alan Strang is.

That’s after Dysart hypnotizes him and re-creates a little of what happened.

It’s really weird.

What makes this show work is the equine cast, the six guys who wear the metal framework which turns them into horses, courtesy of “dialect coach & horse movement choreographer” Gerry Trentham.  You have to see the six of them prancing around in the horse’s heads, with the movement of horses to make the show work, especially Dudney Joseph’s Nugget.

When this show opened in a production I saw in London, this was breakthrough theater in still Puritan and censored British entertainment.  Now, it’s outdated in most ways, but director David Oliver still has a great story to work with and a strong conflict of characters between patient and doctor and he does well with it.

Here, the show’s core is a really strong performance from O’Neill and from Tighe.

The major problem with the show is inherent in the script, the slow start as playwright Shaffer’s story begins to roll out and all the complicated pieces of the script begin to settle into place and the gears whirl.  This is a Swiss watch gearing of a play, built beautifully to place the conflict center stage in the Irish Classical’s pit.

Oliver does something unusual in this production, keeping up the pace of the show by having the entire cast sitting on benches around the stage so they can come on and off quickly so nothing slows down. Even the six horses are right there, as are their horse’s heads.

Keeping up the pace means we don’t lose the central thread of Shaffer’s script, the interplay between the doctor and the patient, O’Neill and Tighe.  They are the best part of the show, although there are strong performances from Hall, Mogensen, Joseph and Gjurich.

The stalk the stage, circling each other and seeking solutions to each’s problems, all in front of the audience.  That’s why the show moves so quickly to frame the collision between mental illness and mental doctor and why you need to see “Equus.”

Review by By Augustine Warner | www.speakupwny.com