Equus has come to be known as one of the twentieth century’s finest psychological dramas. The riveting play concerns seventeen year old Alan Strang, recently institutionalized for the unsettling crime of blinding five horses in the middle of the night. He is entered into treatment with Martin Dysart, an aging child psychologist on the cusp of the inevitable question: Have I done anything meaningful with these children? Peter Shaffer’s powerful characters and writing are a way to expose such themes as extremist religion, the ‘normal,’ the fault of the parent, and the end result of psychotherapy.
To tell this unnerving tale, designer Sarah O’Brien places about twenty chain swings in four rows. They take over the space of the stage with one swinging platform in the center. The theater she creates is industrial, sterilized, and cold with the set looking like an avant-garde sado-sexual dungeon. This innovative stage design immediately lets the audience know they’re in for a creative telling of the notorious play. At the back of the stage hang five metal horse heads. These horse masks (dramaturgy by Byron Laviolette) are beautiful in design and unnerving in use. They, when worn by the male chorus of horses, serve to extend the theme of violent sexual attraction between Alan and the horses, but when returned to their resting posts at the back of the stage, become Godly Herm-esque columns that are, as Alan says, “always watching.” It’s an effective employment of seemingly simple props. The lighting by Patrick Lavender, although not as potent as the horse masks, does work to complement the scene changes and themes in the play: ice blue for the cold institution and warm gold for the holy stables. The play employs little music (by Scott LeBlanc), but when it does—such as the choric hymns sung during flashbacks to the night in the stable—it is effective and works to make an already strong scene even better.
The actors also work to enhance the play with performances worthy of the noted drama. Dysart is portrayed with weariness and crumbling identity by Peter Higginson who, despite missing cues and speaking over other actors at least ten times throughout the play, delivered an overall solid performance. Tumultuous teenager Alan played by Jesse Nerenberg gained my respect for his total immersion in the complex role. He committed fully in all the scenes, effectively portraying Alan from seven to seventeen years old. Both leads invested themselves in the play, which is quite respectable for such dense and dramatic material, but neither truly reached the level of the material they’re working with. Despite this, the two shine most when together, especially during the back and forth interchanges between the psychologist and his patient. The two have undeniable chemistry and play off the developing relationship between Dysart and Strang as father and son effectively. The secondary actors (Claire Acott as highly strung religious fanatic Dora Strang, Thomas Gough as repressed and unhappy Frank Strang, and Sonia Lindner as the liberated and kind hearted Jill Mason) all execute their roles with precision and ease. Without these strong supporting performances, the play could not not capture the powerful dynamics at work.
Under Elenna Mosoff’s direction, the actors do double duty and use the simple set to form new spaces. As the play is being performed, the actors move the swings to signify scene changes: a jumble of metal represents the instability of Alan’s home, perfectly precise rows display the prim institution, an archway projects the sanctity of the stables, and so on. The only criticisms present are that the first act was, at almost two hours, simply a bit too long, and that her leading man couldn’t quite commit to the script. Other than these issues, Mosoff has crafted a work to be proud of: her staging is effective, scene changes are seamless, props are pitch perfect, lighting and music complement the play but do not overpower it, and the play is, overall, a very effective and disturbing piece of dramatic theater. Her creative interpretation brings something new to the 1973 play and engages the audience completely.
Equus is playing at the Hart House Theatre (located at 7 Hart House Circle) from now until November 27th. The play runs from Wednesday until Saturday night at 8PM, with a special Saturday matinee at 2PM on the 27th. Tickets, which can be bought online or at the Hart House Box Office, cost $25 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, with a special $10 student price available on Wednesdays. The nearest subway station to Hart House Theatre is St George.
The play features mature themes, swearing, full frontal nudity, smoking, strobe lighting, and haze effects.