Saturday, May 19, 2018

Equus Soars, Stuns, and Unsettles at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Palm Beach Dramaworks has produced Peter Shaffer’s great late 20th century play, Equus.  It is one of the best productions of any PBD season, and that’s a superlative I hesitate to use given what has preceded it.  In every respect it is 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 jig saw puzzle and put it together in a flowing, mesmerizing, gut-wrenching production with actors at the very top of their games, particularly the two leads, the skilled, seasoned Peter Simon Hilton as Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist, and an upcoming actor whose brilliant performance portends an extraordinary acting future, Steven Maier as his patient, 17 year old Alan Strang.

Passion vs. the cerebral, paganism vs. Christianity, normal vs. abnormal, regret and hope: 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, 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 the other, but for better or for worse?  The sparse Greek staging strips the story down to its bare essentials while the acting makes this so deeply affecting.

The play was written in the 1970s at a time when an anti-psychiatry movement was underway.  In fact, Shaffer himself amusingly recalled that “in London Equus caused a sensation because it displayed cruelty to horses; in New York, because it allegedly displayed cruelty to psychiatrists.”  Nonetheless, 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 nearly fifty years ago.

Lewis is widely known as a collaborative director, believing in his creative staff and encouraging the actors to make their own unique contributions to the story the playwright has to tell, while remaining true to the text.  It shows in this production, bringing out the best of the playwright, and the actors, the technical staff facilitating its implementation.  The direction and the staging are like a skillfully solved Rubik's Cube.  This is A Master Class in every respect.

Alan Strang is a disturbed inaccessible boy, the product of a stern atheistic father who also leads a secret life and his very piously 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 where he worked?

The incident leads to Alan being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in southern England and into the care of its head psychiatrist Martin Dysart.  Dysart at first objects to taking on still another patient but his friend, Hesther Salomon, a sympathetic magistrate who believes Alan would be better off in his care than in a prison, urges him on.  Increasingly, for reasons Shaffer steadily feeds to the audience, 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 Strang is grippingly played by Steven Maier.  This is not only his PBD debut but, remarkably, his Regional Theatre debut.  He is an amazingly gifted actor who portrays 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.  And yet, Alan is moved by “the way they give themselves to us.”  He replaces a portrait of Christ in his room, one of him in chains on the Road to Calvary, with a picture of a horse looking straight on, it’s enormous eyes the most salient feature: “behold I give you Equus, my only begotten son.”  Maier goes places you rarely see on a stage, a place where inner demons dominate.

At first he can only chant advertising jingoes as he enters therapy but as Dysart brings him closer in touch with the heinous act he has committed, Maier’s performance builds and builds to an insistent crescendo.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, Alan literally climaxing while on his favorite horse, Nugget (Equus), to which he is erotically attracted, the two becoming centauresque at that moment.

Peter Simon Hilton plays Dysart as a stern ringmaster, orchestrating, pressing, questioning, and controlling what happens in the present and making Alan play out what happened in the past.  Frequently the past and the present are happening concurrently, actors talking across one another.  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 simply brilliant analytical monologues which conclude with such introspection.  He comments on his concern about taking away Alan’s “worship” of horses to Hesther:

“I only know it’s the core of his life. What else has he got? Think about him. He can hardly read. He knows no physics or engineering to make the world real for him. No paintings to show him how others have enjoyed it. No music except television jingles. No history except tales from a desperate mother. No friends. Not one kid to give him a joke, or make him know himself more moderately. He’s a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist. He lives one hour every three weeks -- howling in a mist. And after the service kneels to a slave who stands over him obviously and unthrowably his master. With my body I thee worship! …Many men have less vital with their wives.” 

Indeed, such as Dysart’s non-existent relationship with his off stage wife.  More and more of Dysart’s thoughts go to his own deferred passion, Greek mythology, particularly the dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysus, and thoughts of retiring to Greece (but with whom, not with a wife who fails to appreciate the mythology, or him).  Frequently Dysart addresses the audience directly, Hilton staring into our faces, drawing us yet further into the heart of the play.

Dysart is one of the most conflicted cerebral characters in a 20th century play which Peter Simon Hilton conveys 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?”  Have we made a difference?  Are we condemned too to wear a metaphoric horse’s bit?

The major supporting roles are all played by experienced PBD actors.  Julie Rowe as Dora Strang, Alan’s semi-hysterical mother, candidly displays the emotions of a loving parent, but is understandably bewildered and horrified by her son’s act, particularly because of her belief in the religious education she provided.  Her husband, Frank, is played by John Leonard Thompson, darkly, uncomfortably --  being such a private person now thrown into the light of the courts and the institutional process of treating his son, their only child, of whom he’s been critical all his life, (“son of a printer and you never open a book!”).  His work ethic collides with his urge to visit adult films.  Thompson shows a man racked by guilt and self defensiveness.

Dysart’s friend, and magistrate, Hesther Salomon, is compassionately played by Anne-Marie Cusson, she being the only sounding board for Dysart other than the audience itself.  Cusson is stalwart in bolstering him up at those very difficult times when he is expressing his greatest doubts, both as a man and a doctor. Her sensitive portrayal is deeply touching, especially when she expresses the constant reminder to him and us that “children before adults” must be humanity's mantra if we are to remain a civilized world.

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 1970’s.  Her playful and persistent interest in Alan ultimately leads to an unsatisfactory sexual incident in the stables, which causes Alan’s destructive anguish to surface, melding his shame and fear and derangement into an unfathomable crime.

Harry Dalton, the owner of the stable, is played by the accomplished Steve Carroll and the nurse who works for Dysart is professionally played by Meredith Bartmon. 

Not enough accolades can be directed to the actors playing the horses.  Sounds silly, I know, yet led by head horse, “Nugget” majestically as well as muscularly played by Domenic Servidio (he also plays “The Horseman,” a man who takes Alan for a ride on a horse at a beach as a youngster), are the others skillfully and mesmerizingly played by Austin Carroll, Nicholas Lovalvo, Robert Richards, Jr., and Frank Vomero.

Talk about method acting, each of the horsemen, as well as Maier (Alan) spent time at a local stable – in fact Servidio went to a dude ranch for a long weekend – to have a better understanding of a horse’s movement, particularly in a stable.  They discovered horses’ ticks, with their hoofs, their reactionary movements, their ubiquitous eyes.  I truly believe this enhanced the performance, not to mention certain choreographed moments when the horses provide a ghoulish background for some of the action “in the ring.”

And, indeed, the scenic design by PBD 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, so the stripped down representation of a boxing ring is a visual source for these pugilistic encounters.  And as in Greek theatre of classical times, it’s a simple space to tell a story, with minimal props, most of which are pantomimed, except for the horses’ heads which are in keeping with the masks worn in Greek theatre.  It’s up to the audience to visualize the scenes from those outlines.

And as in Greek theatre, both the horses and the actors who are not engaged in a particular scene play the role of a Greek chorus.  The actors sit on seats slightly off stage, watching all the action, as Dysart urges Alan on into the depths of his soul, waiting for their turn to engage in the “fight” in the ring.

The lighting by Kirk Bookman enhances this sense of a pugilistic ring, a bright spotlight on the action from directly overhead, while other lighting is used to demark other settings, such as Alan’s room at home, the stable which is Alan’s sacred temple, or a scene at a beach.  The lighting is particularly effective in the breathless scene when Alan mounts Nugget, PBD’s turntable stage whirling counter-clockwise while the surrounding prism-like lighting turning clockwise outside 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 bellbottoms and boots.  Every character seems to have a warm or cool aspect to their clothing, but the boy has been clothed for comfort and simplicity since he is often falling or flailing or clutching at his well worn pullover.  The horses, on the other hand, are dark forbidding masculine beasts all in skin tight black, either wearing or carrying their grotesque but compelling horse head masks, while mesmerizingly stamping the ground with their ingenious booted hoofs.

One cannot overstate the importance of the work by the sound designer, Steve Shapiro.  It is an “otherworldly” sound, not the mood music associated with most theatrical productions.  Think of electronically reproduced fragments of "Also sprach Zarathustra."  Everything becomes electronically magnified by Shapiro, including the horses’ “hum” when dramatic action is rising.  There is some dissonant electronic music when necessary, especially when taking the audience into Alan’s mind, making us all feel deeply unsettled. 

With a large cast and such an abstract production, the importance of the stage manager’s work is evident.  Kudos to the very experienced PBD veteran James Danford who oversees this seamless production.

Much has been made of the 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.”  It is not gratuitous nudity but totally befitting the play’s honesty.

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.

Photo Credits

1.Meredith Bartmon, Austin Carroll, Robert Richards, Jr., Domenic Servidio, Steven Maier, Frank Vomero, Nicholas Lovalvo, John Leonard Thompson; Photo by Alicia Donelan

2.Meredith Bartmon, Peter Simon Hilton, Steven Maier; Photo by Alicia Donelan

3.Steven Maier, Domenic Servidio Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

4.John Leonard Thompson, Steven Maier; Photo by Alicia Donelan

5.Peter Simon Hilton, Steven Maier, Mallory Newbrough; Photo by Alicia Donelan

6.The Horses of Equus, Steven Maier; Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

7.Equus Palm Beach Dramaworks Stage; Photo by Bob Hagelstein