Ours is an age fascinated by the deconstruction of myth—the plight of Oedipus reduced to a “complex” anyone might share, Christ’s Passion reverently reconceived as a slasher film, caped crusaders revealed as the product of difficult childhoods—so it may well be time to look afresh at the underpinnings of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
On its arrival three decades ago, in a staging that evoked the stripped-to-essentials aesthetic of Greek tragedy, this play about a boy who blinds horses with a metal spike and the doctor who aims to heal him was hailed for “reanimating the spirit of mystery that makes the stage a place of breathless discovery.” With those words in October 1974, the New York Times ushered in an age of psychiatric detective dramas, and though the form was quickly appropriated by Hollywood, its continued stage influence is undeniable. Agnes of God (currently at Church Street Theater) and Never the Sinner (currently at Source Theatre) could both be said to have been sired by Equus, and both would doubtless give their eyeteeth for an image as attention-grabbing as the one with which Shaffer’s drama begins at Clark Street Playhouse.
Washington Shakespeare Company’s staging starts by showing us where the story will eventually lead: to a naked boy pressing his cheek against the flank of a horse he sees as a god. How a 17-year-old stablehand came to worship and then attack this stately creature will be explored by the societal chorus that surrounds them—it is, in fact, dissected in an opening soliloquy that accompanies the ceremonial unmasking of the actor portraying the horse—but the spotlit naked image, primal in its simplicity, captures the play’s mystery.
It also announces that director Lee Mikeska Gardner will be taking a somewhat unconventional approach to Shaffer’s script. Most stagings save the nudity for much later in the evening, making it a visual capper to what is gradually revealed as the teenager’s conflation of erotic and religious obsessions. The boy’s court-appointed psychiatrist is generally portrayed as a dried-up husk of a man, a literary classicist whose enthusiasms revolve around Greek friezes and whose nightmares have him taking a scalpel to the imagination and individuality of children. The play poses its protagonists as diametric opposites—titans representing unfettered emotion and blinkered reason—and most stagings use the boy’s naked vulnerability as a conclusive contrast to the passionless rationality of his shrink. This one, perhaps noting that they’re both in pain, makes them significantly more alike and, by placing sex front and center from the start, brings that metaphoric dichotomy firmly down to earth.
Which doesn’t much alter how the play’s detective story functions. Stableboy Alan Strang (Jay Hardee) initially speaks only in advertising jingles but slowly emerges from his shell as psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Christopher Henley) rummages through his bag of clinical tricks. The doctor queries the lad’s atheist father (Bruce Alan Rauscher) and religious mother (Cam Magee), and he learns that Dad once tore a picture of Christ from its place of honor at the foot of Alan’s bed and replaced it with a picture of a horse, head-on, eyes staring. Clues accumulate, pointing to the beginning of an obsession—how Jesus’ crown of thorns merged in the boy’s mind with the bit in the horse’s mouth, how he took one in his own mouth to see how it felt—but not to how that obsession turned violent. This boy who tried to bond with his god, to become in effect a centaur, must be pressed further, and Dysart, who has only ever looked at pictures of centaurs in art books, begins to fear that he’ll rob Alan of something precious. “Can you think of anything worse anyone can do to someone than take away his worship?” he wonders. “Passion can be destroyed by the doctor, not created.”
Henley’s Dysart is not the emotional eunuch audiences have come to expect of this character. Though trapped in a sexless marriage to an antiseptic Scottish dentist (“we briskly wooed, briskly wed, were briskly disappointed, and turned briskly to our respective surgeries”), he’s pictured in this production as having a torrid affair with the barrister (Adrienne Nelson) who brought Alan to his attention. Gardner’s staging uses this conceit to infuse some of the psychiatrist’s more anguished speeches with an offhand irony: He and the barrister are rolling around in the hay, for instance, as he confesses to being jealous of “that boy [who] has known a passion more ferocious than I have known at any second of my life.” Of course, letting him be more emotional also diminishes the distance between doctor and patient.
Hardee’s Alan closes that distance from his end, as well. Less withdrawn than watchful, less cowed than angry, and with tattoos dotting his torso and a conspicuous diamond stud in his navel, he gives every appearance of being far more outgoing than his parents suspect. His glare may warn people away, but he enters with little hesitation into the games with which the doctor means to tear his secrets from him. And because their scenes together are robust and less clinical than usual, the more expansive flashbacks to Alan’s days in the stable must grow as well. Sometimes this pays surprising dividends—recalling the grooming of horses, the boy all but dances—other times, it’s just overstated.
All of which contributes to an Equus that’s sharpest when least grand. Quiet moments almost invariably play strongly, powered by some smart supporting performances—Elisha Efua Bartels radiating normalcy as a girl who’s caught Alan’s eye, Magee’s anguished mom melting into tears, exploding into laughter, and desperately maintaining that Alan is his own monster, not one of his parents’ making. Bigger moments work less well despite fine design work and savvy staging. The moonlight ride that ends the first act felt strangely anticlimactic the night I saw the play, though it was certainly nicely conceived. Eric Dixon’s lighting pierced an auditorium filled with midnight mist, illuminating sculptural equestrian masks that designer Abby Wood had hung above a polished stage. The cast whipped up a frenzy, their shouts ferocious, their galloping smartly mimed—but the pounding of feet on floorboards, artful though it might have been in the managing, somehow never became hoofbeats.CP