BWW Review: EQUUS Isn't Horsing Around at Pittsburgh Public
When I attempted to invite a plus one to see Pittsburgh Public Theatre's production of Equus, the only people who recognized the Peter Shaffer play by name were those who then made a joke about "that's the one where Harry Potter gets naked and bangs a horse, right?" (Full disclosure: the word they used was not "bangs.") Such is the cultural impact of this strange, strange play: a star vehicle with bestiality. And while neither Harry Potter nor Daniel Radcliffe appear onstage here in town, nor does anyone actually have sex with a horse- although one character does climax while riding one- the specter of zoophilia hangs heavy over the dark world of 1970s England that Shaffer depicts.
The first half hour of Equus feels decidedly familiar, though it is likely the trope codifier for a thousand imitators later: a gifted psychologist (Daniel Krell) is given a case for the books, breaking into the psyche of a tough nut to crack (Spencer T. Hamp). At first unresponsive, then combative, this patient quickly becomes inquisitive and manipulative, resisting having his layers peeled back by attempting to peel away the façade of his therapist instead. Up to this point, the play feels almost like a decades-earlier dry run for that later masterpiece of psychological profiling, The Silence of the Lambs, even down to the traumatic farmyard experiences hidden at the story's heart. But troubled teen Alan Strang is no Hannibal Lecter; he's much more victim than villain, however disturbing his psychology and crimes may be.
As psychologist Martin Dysart, Daniel Krell subverts his usual typecasting as the easily befuddled "perfect fool" (most recently seen in both the Public's Twelfth Night and St. Vincent's See How They Run) by utterly embodying the intellectual, worldly and antiquarian Brit. Hiding both an irascible sense of humor and doubts about the sanity of the rational Western world beneath his professional demeanor, Krell's performance as Dysart is electric, anchoring the show with intense opening and closing monologues.
Spencer T. Hamp has the showier role- and some might argue the star turn- as Alan Strang. The majority of the play comes from his own dreamlike flashbacks to events in his own life, as his atheist/socialist father (Timothy Carter) and devout Christian mother (Nancy McNulty) both attempt to exert some "positive" influence on their slightly simpleminded son, with disastrous results. As his religious fervor, parental fear and burgeoning sexuality become intermingled, Hamp's nuanced and protean performance shifts fluidly between child, man, pilgrim, lover and psychopath- becoming all at once in the presence of Nugget (physical movement specialist Ben Blazer), a horse who reminds him of a formative "sexy" moment with a horse and his rider (also both Blazer). Resident director Ted Pappas refuses to take the easy way out and conflate Strang's horse-worship into a repressed and perverted homosexual coping mechanism, though one could argue that the play pushes in that direction textually. Instead, Pappas and Hamp present a nearly asexual Strang, whose sole passion, psychologically, spiritually and sexually, is for the horse that replaced Christ on his wall.
Shaffer's plays are usually something of a man's world, and Equus rests on the shoulders of the male players. The women of the show have smaller, though not less interesting, parts. Dora Strang, as played by Nancy McNulty, blends religious fervor with a coddling affection for her son's horse obsession, in stark contrast to Timothy Carter's Frank, a seemingly cold and compassionless man who nonetheless cares more about his son than he lets on. Emerging as a major presence in Act 2, Jessie Wray Goodman's Jill the stable girl is kind, flirtatious and fun, though admittedly a bit of a cipher- it's not HER we're seeing, it's Strang's conflicted memory of her and what she stood for. Finally, Lisa Velten Smith portrays Hesther Saloman with the archetypal "I don't always approve of your methods or single-minded intensity, but dammit, you get RESULTS" authority that psychological thrillers practically require.
Here's something you can't say about just every show: the scenery for Equus is SCARY. James Noone's design features bright lights and enormous stable doors that occasionally boom open in moments of utter quiet; I could hear audience members around me jump the first time it happened. The effect is assisted by Tilly Grimes's costume design for the horses (portrayed by the male ensemble), with stiltlike hooves and metallic heads.
It's sad to be letting go of Ted Pappas, who begins his closing season at the Public with this production. Nonetheless, I can't think of a better way to see out the reigning creative than a show like this, which allows him both to explore new territory and reinvent some old tropes and clichés as something bracing and new. Take it from me- you won't think of Harry Potter even once.