Equus

equusWhodunnit? This question has been posed to audiences for centuries of storytelling. Whether it’s a murder mystery or a comedic caper, there’s nothing better than finding out the truth by the journey’s end.

With his Tony Award-winning 1973 play, Peter Shaffer presents an intriguing variation on the genre. Equus is a chilling whydunnit that delves deep into the troubled mind of a man delving deep into the troubled mind of a teenage boy.

With its paramount production of Shaffer’s modern classic, Pittsburgh Public Theater gallops into its 43rd season with the force of a thousand charging stallions.

Holding the reins as director here is, of course, Pittsburgh Public’s artistic director Ted Pappas. Much to heartbreak of many local theatregoers, this season marks his last with the company. Luckily, Equus is a high note in Pappas’s PPT swan song. He delivers a perfectly paced and deliberately acted two hour and twenty minute evening in the theater.

Like any whodunnit, Equus opens with characters learning of a horrific crime. Like any whydunnit, the culprit’s identity is known to all from the beginning.

Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Daniel Krell as Dr. Martin Dysart
Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Daniel Krell as Dr. Martin Dysart

Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Daniel Krell) speaks directly to the audience about a case that has come across his radar. In a fit of mania, seventeen year old Alan Strang (Spencer T. Hamp) brutally blinds six horses with a metal spike. Dysart’s discussion of the Strang case is no longer abstract when court magistrate Hesther Salomon (the always compelling Lisa Velten Smith) basically drops the boy on Dysart’s doorstep.

In an effort to discover the method behind Alan’s madness, Martin turns to Alan’s parents, Frank (Timothy Carter) and Dora (Nancy McNulty). Martin quickly unearths Frank’s utter intolerance for the religion that Dora constantly thrusts upon Alan and the damage it has done to Alan’s mental state. After resisting for a while, Alan too opens up about his first real life experience with a horse outside of staring into the eye of the horse on the poster his dad gives him to replace one depicting Jesus’s crucifixion.

The experience of riding a stranger’s horse was transcendent for Alan and the start of his journey down an increasingly dark path. We learn that Alan meets a young woman named Jill (Jessie Wray Goodman), who works at a local stable and offers Alan a job there. Their instant attraction sparks something in Alan that brings his obsession with horses and his carnal desires to their inevitable violent conclusion.

Before you pick up the phone to call PETA, know that there were no horses harmed in this production of Equus.

The animals are portrayed by a sextet of strapping male actors (including Ben Blazer playing Nugget, Alan’s favorite horse) wearing elaborate foot and headpieces realized by costume designer Tilly Grimes. Pappas beautifully balances the pageantry of the horses’ many thrilling entrances with the grotesqueness of Alan’s twisted relationships with them.

Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Ben Blazer as the horse, Nugget
Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Ben Blazer as the horse, Nugget

The psychological cat and mouse game between Alan and Martin is made all the more exhilarating by the fact that, at any given moment, it is unclear who is the cat and who is the mouse. Pappas ratchets up the tension and finds tremendous meaning in the play’s gray areas. He pushes his audience and his actors to their very limits.

Equus is probably most famous for the 2007 Broadway production featuring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to find discussion of Radcliffe’s performance in the show than it is to find discussion and photographic evidence of Radcliffe’s nude scene in the production. While that scene is pivotal to the show and, in this production in particular, spellbinding to behold, it shouldn’t distract from the incredible amount of work that the actor playing Alan must put in before then to make that scene land.

It certainly does not distract from Hamp’s beguiling work because he is laid bare before the audience long before he removes his clothing. His Alan is a horrifying reminder of what can happen when parents attempt to craft their children’s minds in their own image. Carter and McNulty have separate vicious moments with Hamp, but their anguish in their roles as confused parents is unmistakably sympathetic.

Hamp fills the stage (an elegant metaphor for the industrial, prison-like recesses of Alan’s and Martin’s minds created by scenic designer James Noone) whether he’s in the fetal position under a blanket in the corner or commanding center stage riding high on Nugget’s back.

At times, it feels like Martin Dysart is the audience’s patient. A lot about Martin’s personal life and nightmares are revealed via monologue, but Krell very effectively uses the silences between them divulge the most about his complicated character. It is a tour de force role and he delivers a truly tour de force performance to match.

I left the O’Reilly Theater an even bigger fan of Equus than I was when I went in. It is a play that is relevant not because its subject matter is ripped from the headlines but because the various characters’ searches for deeper meaning in life and its ugliness resonate.

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production (literally for me) brought that point home. It’s no Trojan horse, it’s the real deal.

Equus plays at the O’Reilly Theater through October 29th. For more information, click here.

Photos by Michael Henninger