A Plucky Production of Peter Shaffer's Equus
The Custom Made Theatre Company recently presented a brave production of Peter Shaffer's Equus. The company wisely does not try to mimic the English accents, although the play takes place in the U.K.
Peter Shaffer's confrontational drama opened in London in 1973, and New York quickly picked up the piece. The American production opened at the Plymouth Theatre on October 14, 1974, with Anthony Hopkins playing the psychiatrist and Peter Firth portraying the teenaged patient. I saw that production, which also had Marian Seldes and Frances Sternhagen in the cast. Fox's well-made film version of the psychological drama starred Richard Burton and Peter Firth. The drama is usually produced at college drama theatres. The East West Players in Los Angeles did a production of the two-act piece last year.
Equus is a hard play to produce since you must have a leading character compelling enough to make his overemphasized middle-age anxiety forgivable. Unfortunately for this production the doctor, who is actually an emergency room doctor, underacts while the patient sometimes overacts his psychosis. It is an uneven balance between the two main characters.
Equus centers on the volatile meetings between seventeen-year-old Alan Strang (Gabriel A. Ross), who has blinded six horses with a spike, and Martin Dysart (Fred Pitts), a middle aged psychiatrist. Dysart's search for the meaning of Alan's act leads him to doubt his own vocation and integrity. The doctor becomes confused as to how he should respond to Alan and the mental world he created.
Equus is a bit of a relic in today's world. The play was groundbreaking in 1974, and the Broadway production racked up 1209 performances. There is a lot of patient-doctor transference, and some of the methodical soliloquies tend to be somewhat boring. The play lacks the punch it had when I saw it years ago.
Fred Pitts underplays the role of Dr. Dysart. There does not seem to be an intellectual vigor, humor or drive in his performance. His academic speeches drone on, even when he is speaking about his own passion for the Greek antiquities. His character only comes alive when confronting the young teenager about his problem.
Gabriel A. Ross is very good as Alan Strang. He breaks down the adolescent obsession that makes uncontrolled fidelity more dodgy than drugs. In the second act, when Danielle Doyle as his girlfriend Jill seduces him to strip naked, he seems to strip himself naked emotionally as well. Ms. Doyle is also excellent in this scene.
Equus' supporting cast gives effective performances. Leah S. Abrams gives a dignified performance as the local magistrate chairman. Richard Wenzel and AJ Davenport give capable performances as the parents of the strange boy. Eric O'Kelly as Harry Dalton and Mark Stuver as Nugget are agreeable in their small roles.
Director Alice Shikina is faithful to the playwright's spare presentation. The playing stage has only a few props; the horses occassionally come out and are portrayed by both men and women with horse heads made of wires. Holly Lynn Notte, Eric O'Kelly, Vincent Palo, Mark Stuver and Jessica Rudholm make the horses believable, especially in the frightening scene in the second act.
Equus played through October 28th at the The Custom Stage at Off Market Theatre, 965 Mission St, San Francisco.