Review: Dramaworks’ brilliant, haunting ‘Equus’ clears every hurdle

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEINaaron_bio_pic
Abridged version from lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
May 22, 2018

Peter Shaffer’s great late 20th century play “Equus” is one of the best productions of any Palm Beach Dramaworks season, and in every respect comparable to the outstanding productions of the play which have been performed on Broadway or the West End. Director J. Barry Lewis has taken a metaphoric jigsaw puzzle and put it together in a flowing, mesmerizing, gut-wrenching production with actors at the very top of their games. That’s particularly true of the two leads – the skilled and seasoned Peter Simon Hilton as child psychiatrist Martin Dysart and up-and-coming actor Steven Maier, who gives a brilliant performance as Dysart’s patient, 17-year-old Alan Strang.

Passion versus the cerebral, paganism versus Christianity, normal versus abnormal: these are just a few of the layers of “Equus.” The abhorrent act of blinding five horses with a metal spike brings all these discordant themes together in an incomparable thought-provoking and passionate production.

It is a long play and sometimes difficult to watch as there is such self loathing on the part of the two major characters. And as they reveal more, they change each other. The sparse Greek staging strips the story down to its bare essentials while the acting makes this so deeply affecting. Shaffer’s ability to incorporate all the major themes in the play into a psychological “why he did it” has been dealt with by the vision of the production’s director, the astute J. Barry Lewis, a combination that makes this great theatre. Some have even called the play dated, but Lewis’ direction shapes the play so the ideas are still as relevant in today’s world as it was fifty years ago. This is “A-Master Class” in every respect.

Alan Strang is a disturbed inaccessible boy, the product of a stern atheistic father who leads a secret life and his religious wife who has fervently read passages from the Bible to her son all his life. Are they to blame for Alan’s aberrant behavior of savagely blinding those horses at the stable?

The incident leads to Alan being admitted to a psychiatric hospital and into the care of its head psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart. The case fascinates Dysart. In fact, he becomes obsessively involved as his unhappy personal life is revealed and he begins to doubt the consequences of his life’s work, “curing” people of their aberrations (passions?).

Alan is grippingly portrayed by Steven Maier. This is not only his Dramaworks debut, but remarkably, his regional theatre debut, portraying this tormented boy with complete abandon. Alan’s repressed sexuality merges into a conflation of the agony of Christ with those of horses, their having to endure bridles, reins, and stirrups. Maier’s performance is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, Alan erotically attracted to his favorite horse, Nugget (Equus), the two becoming centauresque.

Peter Simon Hilton plays Dysart as a stern ringmaster, controlling what happens in the present and making Alan play out what happened in the past. As more is revealed in the abreaction process, Hilton effectively shows Dysart’s jealousy of his patient and his increasing doubt in his own life’s work. Hilton holds the audience in his grip delivering Shaffer’s brilliant analytical monologues. 

Dysart’s non-existent relationship with his off-stage wife gives rise to thoughts of his own deferred passion, Greek mythology, and of retiring to Greece. Frequently, Dysart addresses the audience directly, Hilton staring into our faces, drawing us yet further into the heart of the play. He conveys this conflicted character effortlessly, leaving us all to wonder, have we done what our hearts dictated or has society merely set us “on a metal scooter and sen[t] …puttering off into the concrete world?”

The major supporting roles are all experienced Dramaworks actors. Julie Rowe is Dora Strang, Alan’s semi-hysterical mother. Her husband Frank, played by John Leonard Thompson, shows a man racked by guilt and self defensiveness.

Dysart’s friend and magistrate, Hesther Salomon, is compassionately depicted by Anne-Marie Cusson. She is the only sounding board for Dysart other than the audience itself. 

Alan ends up working with the horses at a local stable thanks to a job offer from Jill Mason, skillfully played with a sexual free spirit and sangfroid by Mallory Newbrough, characteristics of the “new age” of the early 1970s. Steve Carroll and Meredith Bartmon play small but important supporting roles. 

The head horse, “Nugget,” is majestically as well as muscularly performed by Domenic Servidio (who is also “The Horseman,” a man who takes Alan for a ride on a horse at a beach as a youngster). The other horses are skillfully and mesmerizingly acted by Austin Carroll, Nicholas Lovalvo, Robert Richards Jr. and Frank Vomero.

Scenic design by Dramaworks veteran Anne Mundell borrows both from the prize fighting ring and the Greek theatre. The play involves constant confrontation between characters and with the inner self, hence the stripped down representation of a boxing ring. The lighting by Kirk Bookman enhances that pugilistic sense with a bright spotlight on the action from directly overhead. The lighting is particularly effective in the breathless scene when Alan mounts Nugget, Dramaworks’ turntable stage whirling counter-clockwise while the surrounding prism-like lighting turns clockwise to create a dizzying sense of movement.

Costumes of the 1970s by Franne Lee are the real deal, often having been borrowed straight out of her own time capsule closet, particularly for Jill in her bell bottoms and boots. The horses are dark forbidding masculine beasts all in skin tight black, either wearing or carrying their grotesque but compelling horse head masks, while ritualistically stomping the ground with their ingenious booted hoofs.

Sound designer Steve Shapiro creates otherworldly sound, not the mood music associated with most theatrical productions. Everything becomes electronically magnified by Shapiro, including the horses’ “hum” when dramatic action is rising. 

Much has been made of some nudity in the play but it only serves as a metaphor for underscoring that when things are stripped down to the bare essence, there is no place to hide. And as Alan plaintively says,” a horse is the most naked thing you ever saw.”

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of “Equus” is not only theatre to think about, but theatre which will haunt your thoughts, electrifying in every way live theatre can be, brilliantly written, conceived and sharply executed.

Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets to “Equus,” call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.

To read more reviews by Robert Hagelstein, as well as his writings covering topics including business, literature and politics, go to lacunaemusing.blogspot.com.

Pictured above: From left, Steven Maier and Peter Simon Hilton. The play runs through June 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach. Photo by Alicia Donelan

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