The Colony — At heart, Equus is a mystery. Why did an unremarkable 17-year-old boy blind eight horses? In his 1973 script, playwright Peter Shaffer grapples with this question that he claims was spurred by a real event that he had heard about secondhand.
Not knowing any of the details of the case, Shaffer was free to explore a fictional and convoluted context in which such a horrendous and senseless crime appears as the logical conclusion of the character Alan Strang’s internal struggle with his sexual awakening and an idiosyncratic personal theology. Alan has been rescued from life imprisonment by a compassionate magistrate who sends him to noted child psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who works in a mental hospital. The boy’s own crisis of faith is mirrored by that of the doctor, who is suffering from what Dysart repeatedly self-diagnoses as “professional menopause.”
In previous productions, as per the script, there are six actors who don horse masks when a scene calls for remembered or imagined horses. In this way, actors, one of whom portrays a young horseman, also become horses. In the current Lakeside Community Theatre production, director Adam Adolfo flips this structure. All the actors except for the two leads are always horses, ever present on stage as they are in Alan’s diseased mind.
In effect, Adolfo reimagines Equus as the confluence of both expressionistic drama and classical Greek theater. “Expressionistic” in the sense that the horses are there to express Alan’s emotional experiences more than to represent real horses outside of Alan’s mind. This really isn’t any different than most productions of the play, but Adolfo then melds this with the notion of a Greek chorus, here made up of eight horses.
Like a chorus, the actors who play the horses are masked, both literally and metaphorically. When a scene requires an actor to deliver lines, a horse, in a reversed transformation, steps out from the chorus, removes his or her horse mask, and takes on the role of a scripted character.
When not delivering lines, the horses, in stylized poses and with horse-like huffing, at times perform elegant modern dance moves choreographed by Adolfo. At other times, they respond, as per their function as a chorus, to the action and lines onstage, usually in an accusatory tone. The horse chorus adds a particularly dynamic and athletic dimension to an already highly animated play. It’s a remarkably effective strategy that underscores Alan’s interior world where the real psychosexual drama unfolds.
In Alan Strang’s imagination, every fear and desire manifest as a horse, so much so that a proliferation of horses constantly distract him from his day-to-day interactions. To him, horses are omniscient, and he obsessively tries to avoid their all-seeing gaze. Jake Montgomery plays the brooding Alan Strang with such nuanced expression and physicality that the audience easily empathizes with him, at times forgetting about his abominable crime.
Dysart is admirably played by Dale Moon, who captures the doctor’s ambivalence in trying to cure the boy. Ellen Bell brings an understated urgency to the role of Hester Salomon, the magistrate who implores the doctor to return Alan to a state of normalcy. There is some real chemistry between her and Moon’s Dysart, and their interactions punctuate the moody drama with some of the only shared human intimacy.
Alex Rain and Autumn McNamara are nicely cast as Alan’s parents—the “relentlessly self-improving” Frank who has a few secrets of his own and the pious and mannerly Dora. Isabell Moon as Alan’s coworker and nominal love interest Jill Mason provides the right amount of frivolity and levity required to buoy a story weighted with heavy themes and overburdened characters.
Jacob Hopson as the no-nonsense nurse, Nolan Spinks as the cavalier horseman, Andrew Derasaugh as the stonyhearted stable owner, and Cameron Fox as the horse Nugget—and the embodiment of Equus’ spirit—completes the strong cast. All should be commended for their artistry and stamina.
In Lakeside’s small black box theater, the audience finds itself surrounded on all four sides by Benjamin Keegan Arnold’s impressive set resembling a stable. (Driving through what remains of the rural North Texas plain on the way to the theater further adds to the cowboy/horse subtext of the play. We could easily find ourselves at a real stable out here.) Within this artificial stable, with straw littering the floor, other places and times seamlessly appear: Dysart’s office, the Strang living room, a beach, Alan’s private hospital room, a porno theater, and, of course, a horse stable. The lighting design, also by Arnold, effectively helps to establish these various locations and also builds and releases tension during transitions.
Adolfo’s well-suited costume design is full of monochromatic brown and tan pieces, from the doctor’s tweed jacket to the leather and suede gear worn by the horses (armbands, harnesses, corsets, vests, and riding boots). They give off more of a steampunk than a BDSM vibe.
There are two minor critical points this reviewer can make regarding this otherwise imaginative and skillful production of Equus. When the horses’ gait shifts into a canter, the actors’ fists, in what typically and near universally denotes a heartbeat, pound the rhythm of the hooves on their chests. In other words, it’s not clear if this sound is that of Alan’s, or the horses’, heartbeat, or if it’s supposed to represent the clippity-clop of the horse’s hooves on the ground.
Also, a more subtle horse presence during some scenes would’ve been appropriate. There were times, for instance, when the sound of stomping—which only ever sounds like a human stomping the sole of a shoe against a floor and never like a horse stomp in a field—jolts the audience’s attention from the unfolding scene.
Shaffer’s physically and mentally demanding play, both for actors as well as for audiences, has become a late 20th-century classic. Adam Adolfo’s reimagined version raises the stakes even further, creating a very enjoyable theater experience that rouses all the senses. It’s great to see a local community theater program such a daring production.