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

An Act of God

18673220_10154590149738388_3679876666088007479_oCommandment 11: Thou shalt buy tickets to this show.

I wouldn’t expect God to toot His own horn, especially when he has Gabriel around to do it for Him, but He was remiss in omitting that mandate from the list of laws He delivers from on high in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s miraculous mounting of An Act of God. I was enraptured from its thunderous genesis to its rollicking revelations and left praying for more.

This play is the gospel according to author David Javerbaum. The 13-time Emmy winning writer has a résumé that should have earned him an honorary doctorate in comedy by now. Most of Javerbaum’s acclaim stems from his long stint as head writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but his memorable work as a lyricist—for musicals including Cry-Baby—is also highly lauded. As a solo author, he has penned two books, the most recent of which serves as the basis for this 2015 one-act.

If that novel’s title The Last Testament: A Memoir by God doesn’t prepare you for the glory in store at the O’Reilly, I’ll do my best to paint the picture of a god that refers to Himself not only as jealous but also as a racist, sexist mass-murderer.

(left to right) John Shepard, Marcus Stevens and Tim McGeever
(left to right) John Shepard, Marcus Stevens and Tim McGeever

With a little help from His archangels Gabriel and Michael, God reflects on His infinite history and the small portion of it He has spent creating and recreating the universe we call home. Via a revised slab of Ten Commandments (handsomely projected on Michael Schweikardt’s razzle dazzle set that literally leaves you on Cloud 9) paired with surprising anecdotes that allude to God’s darker motivations, The Bible is largely and amusingly debunked as religious fan fiction.  

Fully aware of the fact that His facetiousness might be considered heresy to some, God even “takes questions” from the audience during His holy TED Talk. When God lays down His final judgment, it’s impossible to know if the world is saved or doomed but also impossible to deny that this small corner of it is entertained.

I value cleverness in a script above nearly all other virtues, and An Act of God is brimming with it. Rather than settling for just turning ancient Bible stories inside out, the play sets out to ground them in modern sociopolitical contexts.

Perhaps the most gut-busting and astute monologue of the show recasts Eve as Adam’s gay lover Steve. Steve’s sampling of the forbidden fruit is the first domino in the long legacy of homophobia and self-loathing we know all too well today. I was impressed at how skillfully the play balanced being sophisticated and preposterous at times while remaining relatable.

It’s an even stranger feat to craft what is basically a one-person show with three actors, but Javerbaum has conquered the task with ease.

Using Emmy-winning sitcom superstars like Sean Hayes and Jim Parsons to deliver His testimony has been God’s wont for previous Broadway productions of this show, but it’s truly a blessing that He’s chosen “Forbidden Broadway star and beloved Pittsburgh actor” Marcus Stevens as His vessel for this engagement.  

PPTActOfGod002There is no limit—not the sky, nor the heavens—to his likability and versatility. His poor wrath-management skills will leave you quivering in your seat even as that trademark grin spreads across his face. When God smites His most inquisitive angel Michael or delivers a cheesy pun, Stevens receives a huge and hilarious assist from sound designer Zach Moore.

Stevens’ “offbeat charm” is necessary to guide the show through some of its cringe-worthy topical mad lib references to notorious figures including  Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, and Kanye West. Discussing the sacrifice of his middle child Jesus Christ brings up an unexpected amount of emotion for Stevens’ God and the audience witnessing that rare quiet moment of contemplation.  

Rounding out the trinity—decked out in Valerie M. Webster’s pearly white suits and wings—are Stevens’ silver-haired sidekicks Tim McGeever (Michael) and John Shepard (Gabriel). Javerbaum’s late night talk show roots reveal themselves in the way he utilizes these two characters.

Shepard is divinely droll as God’s in-studio co-host, always backing him up with a Bible verse and supportive gesture. McGeever zips all around the theater displaying the strong improv chops and sarcastic appeal inherent in any successful field correspondent.

God and his wingmen are tons of fun, but the real king of the universe here is director Ted Pappas. He works in mysterious and magical ways ensuring that the pace doesn’t drag for one moment. Simply by placing Stevens in various positions in relation to a white sofa, he transforms it into a therapist’s couch, a majestic throne, and the rock from behind which the serpent slithers in the Garden of Eden.  

Whether it’s comedy, drama, classical, or contemporary, you can always count on Pappas to lucidly portray characters and events with tremendous flair. It may have taken God six days to create paradise, but for Pappas and his disciples, it took only 90 minutes.

An Act of God plays at the O’Reilly Theater through July 2nd. For more information, click here

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for complimentary press tickets. Photos by Michael Henninger.