BY Peter Schaffer
Lakeside Community Theatre
Director/Choreographer/Set Dressing/Sound – Adam Adolfo
Assistant Director/Stage manager – Hannah Fuller
Scenic Design/Lighting – Benjamin Keegan Arnold
Property Design – Adam Adolfo, Benjamin Keegan Arnold, Nolan Spinks
Costume & Hair Design – Adam Adolfo
Costume Alterations – Nathan Scott
Board Operator – Hannah Fuller
Martin Dysart/Fears the Mustang – Dale Moon
Alan Strang/Fears the Percheron – Jake Montgomery
Nurse/Holsteiner – Jacob Hopson
Hester Salomon/Highland Pony – Ellen Bell
Frank Strang/Belgian – Alex Rain
Dora Strang/Thoroughbred – Autumn McNamara
Horseman/Andalusian – Nolan Spinks
Nugget/Mustang – Cameron Fox
Harry Dalton/Fjord – Andrew Derasaugh
Jill Mason/Morgan – Isabell Moon
Reviewed Performance: 1/25/2019
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Equus by Peter Shaffer is one of the most potent pieces of theatre to come out of the late 20th Century. This play has received countless of accolades and has been the thesis of many a student both in the field of theatre and psychology. The complexity and profundity of this play has been discussed by scholars, teachers, scientists and philosophers alike. One only need do a Google search with the words “Equus” and “analysis” and hundreds of links to scholarly articles will appear.
There’s a good reason for this deep fascination with Equus. Within 2 ½ hours Shaffer explores topics such as faith, religion, mental health, abuse, sexuality, fetishism, and offers a compelling philosophy on what it means to be human.
The story centers on a youth who has blinded several horses. He is placed in a psychiatric hospital and under the care of a Psychiatrist. As the doctor delves into the mental state of his patient and what caused him to blind the horses the inner workings of the mind of the psychiatrist is revealed. The play makes the audience question where the line is between what is considered normal and abnormal in human behavior.
Schaffer breaks the mold of the traditional play structure: the characters talk to the audience within the framework of a scene while the timeline of past and present are played out at simultaneously. This obliteration of timelines, and constant back and forth between the asides, expository dialogue, monologues, and scenes where the audience is addressed but then ignored would confuse most attendees but Shaffer’s writing is so competent that at no point is the audience confused. The language is banal, profane, yet at times stunningly poetic. There is a reason Equus is as compelling today as it was when it first premiered in 1974: It is a masterpiece.
Tackling such a complex play with unconventional theatrical requirements makes this production difficult to mount. Actors have to become horses, there is full frontal nudity in the play, the subject of sexual attraction, fetishism, violence -both sexual and physical- and the very adult language would scare many patrons away. While this play is not prurient, it also isn’t for the faint of heart. This is a very adult play dealing with very adult subject matters in an honest way.
For Equus to be successful it needs a creative team willing to go full out. Director Adam Adolfo is the perfect director for such a piece. His talents aren’t justin direction but in production design. He holds nothing back, which for Equus is a requirement. The staging is stylized, the lighting dramatic, the overtly sexual themes of the play must be on full display without offending. Because this piece of theatre is as grand as a Greek Tragedy or a Grand Opera, Adolfo smartly created arresting stage pictures and movement that conveyed the heightened drama.
All the actors except for the two leads are both horses and the characters. They are muzzled and remain on stage the entire time. When they enter the scene in play as humans all they do is remove their muzzles, and then re-muzzle themselves and re-join to the herd. As horses they react to the scene being played out either through movement, stomping of their feet/hooves, or braying. It is clear that Adolfo worked with the actors extensively so that not only did each actor portraying a horse capture the essence of the animal, but each one also had their own characteristic temperament. In a way, they become a Greek chorus reacting to the plot.
Where Adolfo falters in his direction is in some of the placement of his horses. As they move around the stage, at times they stop and become like statues or sentinels. Unfortunately on the thrust stage when they would stop they did so always in the exact location, which meant that from where I was sitting they stood directly in front of me blocking the view of most of the stage. It would be forgivable once or twice, but it happened with too much frequency, had I been sitting two seats over I would have had a clear view for the entire show.
Another area of concern in his direction was his work with the actors. He had a competent cast. Their work as horses with individual personalities must have taken much time. Unfortunately, when they became human it was evident that not as much character work was done. Schaffer’s dialogue may seem deceptively straightforward, and because this play deals much with the belief in God, the role of religion in life, and sexual deviancy/desires what is not stated is just as important as what is spoken.
An example of this is when the psychiatrist confesses how he and his wife haven’t had sex because he will stay up late reading and looking at images of Greek Gods to the point of obsession. He isn’t just conveying his interest in Greek art/religion. While the importance of religion is stated clearly via the lines, it is implied by his not mentioning “Goddesess” and the fact that much ancient Greek represents the male body as nude, that the psychiatrist has repressed homosexual inclinations. In turn it also helps explain his compulsive fascination with his young patient Alan. This obsession reaches a crescendo when he interrogates the youth quite insistently forcing Alan to reveal graphic details of his first sexual experience pushing him into an awkward confession of having to describe how his anatomy reacted during that encounter. Unfortunately, none of these subtleties and subtext that run throughout the play is played out by most of the cast. Fortunately Shaffer’s dialogue is strong enough that as an audience we can fill in the blanks, but most of the actors only present the lines as written and fail to convey the nuances of what is left unsaid that help more thoroughly explain the characters behaviors. This flaw prevents the play to reach the apotheosis it deserves.
Dale Moon plays the psychiatrist Dysart. This is a monster role. Well over 50% or the lines belong to him. His character frequently narrates and shares his thoughts about life, religion, mental illness, etc. with the audience. It requires him to be in a scene, step out and make commentary, and then step back into the scene. Unfortunately Moon came across as if he were reciting his lines at times versus expressing them. He physically looked the part and his physicality was excellent but his performance lacked the nuance required for the role. This said, his volume and diction was clear and in the moments where the dialogue was rapid fire, no words were missed, thus helping the audience follow through with the powerful storyline.
As Alang Strang, the young man who blinded the horses, Jake Montgomery is fearless. He plays the character as if everything he did was absolutely normal. This made his psychosis that much more dangerous. This role requires the actor to play many heightened emotional states and he hit each one perfectly. This said, a little more subtlety within each scene was needed. Anger is fine but there are different types of anger: anger caused by hurt, disappointment, loss, etc. The same can be said for other emotions such as love and passion. This is where the director needed to guide Montgomery to add shades of nuance. Nonetheless, Montgomery was able to both charm and horrify the audience. Just as we fall for the kids charms we are reminded by the horrific acts he has committed. And each time he hits the stage there is an inherent dread of what his temperament will be like: will he be violent or playful? For an actor to keep the audience on the edge is a testament to his talents.
Jacob Hopson’s performance as the nurse was sensational. Unfortunately, it was his performance that showed some of the acting deficiencies by the other actors in the play. Though the role is small and the lines are utilitarian in the sense that his character simply updates the psychiatrist on the condition of the patient, an entire narrative was delivered about his feelings about Alan through wht seems like mndane lines. In the beginning when Alan is admitted the Nurse clearly has an attraction to him, but by act 2 it is obvious the Nurse is over any interest he had and would really rather not deal with him. None of Shaffer’s lines explicitly state these emotional states and shift in narrative, but Hopson picked up on the subtext and played it correctly. His physicality as the Holsteiner was also spot-on.
Ellen Bell who played Hester Salomon, Alex Rain as Frank Strang, Autumn McNamara as Dora Strang, ad Andrew Derasaugh as Harry Dalton were competent in their roles. They too hit the emotional notes of the dialogue quite well and were believable. Salomon as the magistrate in charge of Alan’s case showed her increasing dismay as the Doctor begins to question his own capacity as a therapist. Rain as Alans father capably exhibited his dismay as to the increasing religiosity of his wife. McNamara as the mother effectively showed us the guilt parents feel at times over whether they have raised their children properly. Derasaugh as the stable owner who offers Alan a job at the stables also hit all the correct notes of someone who as a boss is only interested in an employee for what the employee can offer but could care less about the employee’s personal life. But as mentioned before, the subtleties of the characters weren’t explored which would have enriched the play more.
Isabell Moon’s performance as Jill Mason was another stand out in the play. Like Hopson, she imbued her character with much more shading making her fascinating. She seduces Alan in the play, but was this a more innocent seduction in that she really cares for him, or is it someone who is older that wants to take advantage of the situation, or maybe a combination of both? This made her character both alluring and dangerous.
Another standout was Nolan Spinks as the Horseman. This small role near the beginning of the play sets off the chain of events that lead to Alan’s madness. Spinks proves the adage that there are no small roles in theatre. His acute performance reverberated throughout the rest of the production.
Lastly, I must also commend Cameron Fox as Nugget. He is the only one who plays the role of a horse and never a human throughout the play. As Nugget he is becomes Alan’s fetish. His role is mostly silent, and though he is muzzled throughout he is able to express with his body and movement a wide range of emotions. As the object of Alan’s desire the role requires an actor the oozes sexuality and danger at the same time. Fox definitely has the physique or the role, but he also has the acting chops to pull it off.
On the technical side the show is nearly brilliant. The costuming by Adolfo, though slightly uneven (some of the costumes were good while others brilliant) captured the essence of the horses which are really half-horse half-human. There is a sado-masochist feel to the costumes which is appropriate without being too obvious since they were done in shades of brown instead of the stereotypical black. His choreography was quite good as was his selection of music choices which underscored the scenes. He was also in charge of the hair design which referenced different styles done the manes of horses but also worked as human hairstyles. The set design and lighting by Benjamin Keegan Arnold was exceptional with one glaring error. The set kept the feel of a stable with a fantastic collage of wood slats center stage and a pair of broken windows that created a modernistic portrait of a horse head without being too obvious. The lighting effectively lit the stage, created moods, and helped the audience along with the shift of timelines and locations in the play. The one error? The seat I sat in blasted me with a narrow shaft of light that created an effect of an open doorway on the floor during certain scenes. The light spill to my seat was blinding. For Act 2 I was able to move to the seat next to me and I no longer had the problem. Because the ceilings are low in this theatre there really was no other way to create this required light effect without having it spill to the one seat. I’d recommend for this production just pulling the seat (the seating is modular) so that other patrons wouldn’t have to lift their program to shield their eyes as I had to.
The make-up design was left un-credited. I have to say while I enjoyed the concept of the make-up and it added a nice feel to the production, it needed to be more uniformly applied.
I must also commend the Board Operator Hannah Fuller. This show is chock full of lighting, sound, and technical cues. The sound and light transitions were smooth and perfectly timed with the acting on stage.
Should you see Equus? Absolutely. Even though there are some flaws in this production, it is a visually gorgeous show with an on the edge of your seat thrilling and compelling script. Because this show is seldom presented it is definitely worth attending, and though it may have some flaws it doesn’t detract from the overall vision of both Shaffer and the insanely talented director Adolfo. There are only two more performances in the run. Do not miss it!
Lakeside Community Theatre
6303 Main Street, The Colony, TX 75056
Now through February 2, 2019
Performances are February 1 at 8 pm & February 2 at 3 pm. 30, Friday at 8 PM, Tickets $10 - $15. For information and tickets visit www.lctthecolony.com or call 214.801.4869.