By Ande Jacobson
“Intensely fascinated” by an alarming crime recounted by a friend, British playwright, Peter Schaffer, poured his creative energy into his 1973 play, aptly entitled Equus, Latin for horse, against which the crime was committed. Knowing only one horrible detail of the event, scaled back for theatricality, Schaffer posits a possible explanation of the tragedy through a psychological study into the depraved mind of Alan Strang, a 17-year-old, working as a part-time stable boy, and Dr. Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist treating him.
Set in England in a psychiatric hospital, the story begins with Dysart’s monologue, talking of his disappointment with his professional life treating troubled youth. He mentions a Grecian/Homeric dream he has, steeped in symbolism about his disappointments, but then segues into the case of Alan Strang. The action shifts to acting out the case, starting with Hesther Salomon, the magistrate presiding over the case at hand, who brings Alan to Dysart, who in turn begins treating the boy. Alan, as in court, initially won’t speak, but sings television commercial jingles, and by night suffers from nightmares.
After a bit of this, Dysart and Alan enter into a quid pro quo arrangement, each alternately asking and honestly answering the other’s questions. Through Alan’s answers, some of which are acted out between Alan and a horseman, a horse, and a stable girl, and discussions Dysart has with Alan’s parents, and the stable owner, Dysart pieces together some rather disturbing facets of Alan’s psyche and the twisted religious/erotic confusion driving him, though this still doesn’t fully divulge the crux of Alan’s pathology. Dysart then employs a bit of psychiatric chicanery, and the results are even more surprising.
Opening night, City Lights Theater Company’s Executive Artistic Director, Lisa Mallette’s curtain speech reminded the audience of City Lights Theater Company’s ongoing efforts to present engaging theater, including new and adventurous works, and warned of mature content along with her emphatic “no photography of any kind” plea. She also announced the 2011-2012 season, introduced the evening’s artist, and the non-profit partner for the run, Theatre Bay Area. City Lights, in the spirit of giving back, chooses a non-profit partner for each production.
With Equus, City Lights Theater Company has taken on an extremely demanding dramatic work, and has shown they are up to the challenge on all levels.
Ron Gasparinetti’s single set design of a movable central platform with benches along each side, four pillars along the back wall representing a stable wall, and chairs off the platform on three sides of the stage works well to show both the real world inside the treatment room of the hospital, while doubling as all other locales as acted out through the cast’s skillful depictions. Rotating the central platform effectively allows movement in a scene beyond the real estate in the tight performance space. Although the rotation is a tad noisy in one scene, the intensity makes that only a momentarily distraction.
Director Kit Wilder’s staging is well done, and is somewhat subtle, beginning the play employing sound designer George Psarras’ original music, almost tribal in nature, setting the mood, and introducing the cast, who spend almost the entirety of the play on stage, but off the central platform when not in a given scene. In the opening sequence, the “horses” enter, and after an initial bit of choreography, nicely transform into horses with the addition of headdresses housed along the back pillars.
The cast is very convincing in their English dialect choices. Led by Steve Lambert’s Dysart and Sean Gilvary’s Alan Strang, they throw caution to the wind, as each role demands serious emotion and commitment. Lambert, claiming this is a dream role with its depth and range, is charming, and initially somewhat disarming, easily delivering his first of many monologues. He uses humor at times, and becomes fiercely intense at others, as he interrogates young Alan. The quick repartee between Lambert and Gilvary, once they get into their quid pro quo, is realistic, and very effective.
Monica Cappuccini’s Hesther Salomon is a focal character, given she brings Alan and Dysart together. She’s an authority figure, and maybe more, and her interactions with Lambert are cautious, but given their relative positions, understandable and acceptable.
Beverley Griffith and Michael J. West as Alan’s parents, Dora and Frank, are convincing, and play polar opposites in their philosophical outlooks, and in their child-rearing choices.
Beth Boulay’s Jill Mason is a challenging role and plays a pivotal part in the sequence of events. She is at once engaging, and believable, and she and Gilvary have good stage chemistry, making their interactions particularly poignant. Boulay and Gilvary, also have some challenging pantomime to act out in the process. Both do an admirable job for the most part, although there are a few moments when objects they are supposed to be holding slightly lose their dimension as in the cases of a horse brush, and a sliding door handle.
Michael Bates has a very physical role, and he easily transforms from human horseman to horse as Nugget rather convincingly.
Danielle Perata’s nurse and Bill Davidovich’s Harry Dalton, the stable owner, have smaller roles, but both are important in helping Dysart sort out the specifics of Alan’s crime. Davidovich is solid, giving Dysart some important information. Perata, while believable as the gentle caring nurse, is a little overmatched by the rest of the cast.
The remaining cast members are in non-speaking roles, but Claire Hein, Shane Rhoades, and Celestial Tranquility all move well, and fill out the ensemble.
Opening night ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.
While Equus is well acted, deeply engaging, and fast moving, it may not appeal to all audiences as it contains dark themes, some strong language, and male and female nudity.
The play runs Thursdays – Sundays through 17 April at the City Lights Theater located at: 529 South Second Street, San Jose, CA 95117. See http://cltc.org/ for more information.