Actor's Express' compelling production finds Equus to be at once dated and ahead of its time. Shaffer's script remains a thrilling psychological detective story, with thought-provoking stagecraft that challenges theater artists and audiences alike. As the years pass, however, Equus's themes gallop off further and further afield.
Chris Kayser plays Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist at a London hospital whose career exacerbates his midlife crisis. He reluctantly takes Alan Strang (Kyle Brumley) as a patient, even though the young man initially deflects all attempts at communication by singing advertising jingles to other people. Dysart's therapy sessions gradually bring down the young man's defenses, and the psychiatrist also questions Strang's parents (Rial Ellsworth and Joanna Daniel) about his childhood knowledge of horses, religion and sex, which prove inextricably related.
Brumley gives a terrific performance that feels truthful to the character's age. He's as awkwardly sullen as any teenager, relishing minor conversational victories over Dysart, but also expresses feelings of runaway abandon. Strang's mental state hinges on the religious worship of an equine deity he calls "Equus." In the ritualistic flashbacks, actors impersonate animals by donning tights, non-realistic masks and hoof-like footwear so they resemble archetypal beasts, not soft-shoe pantomime horses. The masks by scenic and costume designers Moriah and Isabel A. Curley-Clay look partly like ceremonial headgear from ancient Greece, partly like World War I-era gas masks.
The first act ends with the exciting spectacle of Strang taking a horse for an ecstatic ride in the dead of night. Dysart learns that Strang's impulse caused irreconcilable problems, however, when he was attracted to a forward, good-natured girl (the sensitive Sarah Elizabeth Wallis) at the stable where he works. As witnessed by the audience, Dysart's treatment of the young man's health feels more like an exorcism than the conventional therapeutic process.
While Dysart strives to uncover the roots of Strang's problem to help him become a functioning member of society, he worries that a cure will amount to an emotional lobotomy. The psychiatrist feels that the half-mad young man lives life more fully than the middle-aged medical professional ever did. The play's dichotomy between wild, essential human nature and the repressive forces of society feels very much like a concern from the late 1960s and '70s, especially given England's attitudes toward class and conformity. Problematically, Dysart, through his articulate, emotional speeches, hardly seems dead inside, particularly in Kayser's alert, anguished performance.
The shrink's magistrate friend Hester (Kathleen Wattis) provides the voice-of-reason argument that the suffering young man needs Dysart's help. The play all but equates therapy with destroying passionate individuality, which feels out of date - assuming it was ever a valid concept. In general, the study and treatment of abnormal sexuality today seems far more nuanced and complex than Equus suggests.
Director David Crowe and his cast take a forgiving, generous approach to the characters, which softens some of the conflicts. Still, the personalities seem fallible and misguided without any coming across as cheap caricatures or villains. And if Equus's approach to pop psychology feels less convincing with the passage of time, the play's rhetorical and theatrical effects can still set the spectators' hearts racing.
Equus. Through April 21. 8 p.m. Wed.- Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St., Suite J-107. 404-607-7469. www.actors-express.com.
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