Equus, Make Shift, Off the Grid Theatre, Boston, through April 12.
– By Jules Becker
Forty years after winning a Tony Award, “Equus” remains a powerfully disturbing play. While inspired by an actually blinding of six horses by a 17 year old near Suffolk, England, the 1973 drama transcends real events and a controversial situation with ongoing questions about normalcy, religion, the nature of worship and the strengths and weaknesses of psychiatry. Now director Christopher Webb and a strong Off the Grid Theatre ensemble are riding these still timely issues and Peter Shaffer’s provocative play to a tightly reined gallop in the intimate surroundings of the South End venue Make Shift.
Webb, as the production’s playbill indicates, has long wanted to stage “Equus,” and his passionate admiration for its stagecraft is firing up the young company’s very fresh revival. Configured as a traverse stage- where the stage area lies between two audience groups that can see each other- clearly to maximize the intimacy of the staging, the Off the Grid revival achieves a kind of you-are-there effect. Theatergoers are likely to feel as though they At psychiatrist Martin Dysart’s office as he treats Alan Strang, the fictional counterpart of the real troubled teenager and the stable where Alan seems to ‘worship’ Equus, the word he associates with his favored horse Nugget.
Some theatergoers might rightly sense that they are like silent proteges of Dysart as he begins to meet with Strang at the request of court magistrate Hester Salomon. Salomon is determined to restore Alan’s ‘normalcy’ and remove the agony he experiences about the violent stable incident. At first, Dysart seems to be on the proverbial same page with her as he doggedly tries to persuade Strang to open up about himself, his beliefs and his feelings about his life, beliefs and feelings as well as about his parents and horses themselves. Eventually, as he undergoes his own inner crisis, the psychiatrist ends up treating his own doubts about the value and potential damage of the ‘help’ he provides.
Not surprisingly, such estimable actors as Anthony Hopkins (on stage) and Richard Burton (on screen) have tackled Dysart’s complexities. Now another gifted actor-namely Steven Barkhimer- is richly evoking both the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of this deeply conflicted psychiatrist. In body language, formidable facial expression and highly nuanced acting, he is capturing Martin’s professional precision as he restores Alan’s ‘normalcy’ so that he can someday be an accepted husband, parent and member of society on the one hand and his realization that his work is doing harm to Alan’s emotional uniqueness and inner passion (particularly about horses and worship) on the other hand. Greg Pike strongly articulates Alan’s early resistance to Dysart’s treatment and later emotional moment of truth and relative pliancy.
Linda Goetz catches Hester one-track earnest concern for Alan without turning her into a villainess. George Page brings together father Frank Strang’s deep skepticism about religion and his opposition to Alan’s Dionysian side, while Christine Powers finds mother Dora Strang’s blinders-like adherence to Christianity as well as her genuine caring for her son. Alexis Scheer has all of the seductive charms and sincerity of Jill Mason as she reaches out to Alan with understanding. Pike and Scheer sharply capture both the attraction and the tentativeness of Alan and Jill’s nude lovemaking (in a play meant for adults). Darren Brunch is properly responsive to Alan as favorite Nugget, while Kevin Connor, Michelle Rubich, Dana Nacer, Daniel Moore and Sierra Pilkerton move and sound like convincing horses-particularly when they descend and ascend a side stairway as though leaving and entering the pivotal stable.
Place your bets on Off the Grid’s arresting “Equus” to win. This well-trained revival is a real thoroughbred.