By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
May 4, 2018
Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning play, Equus, described as a “psychological thriller,” opens at Palm Beach Dramaworks May 18 and continues through June 3. It was suggested to the playwright by a real-life incident, although the details were never known to him. But, it inspired his imagination and Shaffer wrote what is considered one of the great English plays of the late 20th century. It stands on the level with his other, perhaps better known play, Amadeus.
It takes an exceptional theatre company such as Dramaworks to produce a play of this magnitude and intensity. Not many regional theaters are prepared to showcase a cast of this size with all its emotional rawness. So, for those of us in South Florida, it is an opportunity to see a Broadway-quality play (in fact, it was last revived on Broadway in 2008, which included the Broadway debut of Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame).
Seventeen-year-old Alan Strang is a “strange” boy. Sexually repressed and the only son of an obsessively religious mother and an atheist father, Alan fervently and delusionally conflates the suffering of the symbol of Christianity – Jesus – with those of horses, their having to endure bridles, reins, stirrups, riders dashing spurs against their flanks. And yet, Alan is moved by “the way they give themselves to us.” Alan replaces a portrait of Jesus in his room with a picture of a horse: “Behold I give you Equus, my only begotten son.”
A series of events brings Alan into a job as a stable boy where he can be with the horses he worships and where he feels sexually aroused in their presence. His erotic, passionate obsession with horses leads to the horrific and unfathomable act of blinding six of them.
Alan is played by Steven Maier. One of Dramaworks’ strengths has been in discovering new talent and then casting them in the perfect role. In Maier, a young actor in his mid 20s, they have found someone who can play this very intense part. Maier revealed that given his background in music as an accomplished guitarist and songwriter, he has developed an emotional rawness.
“That (emotional rawness) helps me approach the character of Alan in an organic way,” says Maier. “Songwriting about my inner feelings makes me fearless. It’s a unique role, a real challenge for me. But I have to approach it as any other role, with truthfulness and honesty, although this one is layered with incredible intensity which builds throughout the play.”
According to Maier, each audience will have their own reaction to Alan. “All I can do is to play it honestly and with passion,” he says.
Alan’s case is brought to the attention of Martin Dysart, head psychiatrist at a local hospital, who specializes in childhood trauma. Dysart’s close friend and magistrate, Hesther Salomon (played by PBD veteran Anne-Marie Cusson), believes Dysart is the only person who can delve into the disturbed boy’s unconscious and “cure” him. Against his objections of taking on still another patient, Dysart is nonetheless intrigued by the details of Alan’s case. And so the unraveling of the mystery begins.
Dysart naturally has his own issues, a loveless marriage and a profession he sometimes questions. The closer he comes to “breaking the case” the more he backs away, fearing that “curing” Alan will rob the boy of his passionate nature, the magnitude of which he himself has never known. In fact, this is Shaffer’s comment on modern mankind sliding into obedient citizens simply living out dull and ordinary lives. One can remember Salieri’s obsession with “mediocrity” in Amadeus. Dysart has a similar obsession fearing his profession is killing passion.
Peter Simon Hilton, from Arcadia fame last year at Dramaworks, plays the conflicted character Dysart.
“Equus is very visceral as opposed to Arcadia, which is very intellectual,” says Hilton. “The audience gets right into this play. In many ways it still shocks today.”
Hilton says it’s easy to relate to his character. “One essentially likes him as he doesn’t give up. And I relate to him as I’m English and I’m old enough to remember the times the play is set in. My memory of the cultural references brings advantages in my interpretation of the character. And finally, as I studied classics, I was able to fast track into my understanding of Dysart’s obsession with Greek history and mythology.”
Hilton adds, “It’s one of the great acting roles in the theatre and it’s such an opportunity to play the part and with a leading theatre company. And although the play is set in the 70’s, it is a timeless play.”
Interestingly, both Hilton and Maier cited the same line from the play as their favorite. It is spoken by Dysart but of Alan: “That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time. ‘At least I galloped! When did you?’”
The highly experienced J. Barry Lewis is the director of Equus and he thinks of the script as “poetry at times – the words give clarity to issues in the play.”
According to Lewis, “The story is not what Alan did, but why. And in looking for clues we find where anyone’s passion may lie. Have I done enough? Am I good enough? But we question – and that’s what makes this so relevant: the universal notion of self-doubt. And in the case of Dysart, he is struggling with a case of ‘professional menopause.’”
“Style is the biggest challenge for me, as a director, to bring this play to life,” Lewis says. “Staging is something Peter Shaffer gives over to the director to bring the playwright’s imagination alive to the audience. And style is the big surprise of the play: its minimalism – strip away everything and let the story be told. It is extraordinarily representational. And I love the ability to tell stories in a new framing device.”
Alan’s parents are played by two Dramaworks veterans, John Leonard Thompson as Frank Strang and Julie Rowe as Dora Strang. Alan’s unconsummated love interest, Jill Mason (played by Dramaworks veteran Mallory Newbrough), has such a pivotal role leading to the horrific act. Other actors, all making their Dramaworks debuts, are Steve Carroll, Meredith Bartmon, Domenic Servidio, Nicholas Lovalvo, Robert Richards, Jr., Frank Vomero and Austin Carroll. Scenic design is by Anne Mundell, costume design is by Franne Lee, lighting design is by Kirk Bookman and sound design is by Steve Shapiro. Lee Soroko is the movement coordinator and Ben Furey is the dialect coach.
Equus is a multilayered play dissecting the nature of sanity vs. passion, sex and religion. Palm Beach Dramaworks’ ambitious undertaking can be seen beginning May 18. Palm Beach Dramaworks is located in The Don & Ann Brown Theatre at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Pictured above: Costume pieces during rehearsal for the upcoming production. Equus opens May 18 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll