In Palm Beach Dramaworks’ spellbinding production of “Equus,” it’s not a matter of if you’ll be hooked by the play’s tawdry pathologies, but when. It may be the opening moments of wordless ambience, with ritualistic throat chants on the soundtrack and a spotlit horse head resting center stage, a harbinger of the perversions to come.
Or it may be the first appearance of the five mystical equines—played, as always, by lithe, male, black-clad dancers clopping elegantly in footgear constructed for that purpose—their shadows extending toward the ceiling behind them, overpowering poor, sick Alan Strang (Steven Maier). Certainly by the end of Act 1, when that spinning platform we’ve been looking at for an hour and 10 minutes is finally put to use, and Strang has hopped atop a mare, galloping toward orgasm in a dizzying vision of lighting, sound and movement, the show has sunk its hooves into us all.
We become like the voyeurs at the peep show to which Strang is dragged in Act 2, hungry for the next vicarious fix. As with Martin Dysart (Peter Simon Hilton), the provincial psychiatrist whose treatment of Strang triggers his own discomfiting reflections, we experience the boy’s illicit ecstasy through osmosis. I left the production flummoxed and roped into its madness, struggling to re-process a show I’d seen in the past, but never like this.
Such are the gifts of Dramaworks’ impeccable cast, director and design team, which more than dusted the mothballs off Peter Shaffer’s flawed 1973 drama. Inspired by the real-life story of a boy who blinded five horses with a metal spike in a small English town, “Equus” is Shaffer’s attempt to understand the crime through a now-unfashionable Freudian lens. It’s structured at times like a courtroom mystery, with Dysart’s therapist doubling as de-facto investigator, interviewing key players in Strang’s life one by one until he’s finally able to push the boy toward a reconstruction of the night in question and, finally, a catharsis.
Some of the writing still zings, like Dysart’s reference to the “professional menopause that everyone gets sometimes,” or his unflinching monologue about the loveless marriage he’s fallen into like some everyday abyss. The comparison of trench-coated porno-movie patrons to congregants in throng to their God is spot-on, and the critique of television as a mindless time suck, delivered pungently by John Leonard Thompson as Strang’s father, is still pretty accurate.
But the leaden symbolism and the pop psychology weigh heavily on the play, and too many of the supporting characters are stock types laboring in two dimensions—especially Strang’s parents, the rigid socialist Frank and the fundamentalist zealot Dora. Much credit is due to Thompson and Julie Rowe for shading both with varying degrees of pity, empathy and tortured desperation, breaking out of their characters’ stereotypical boxes.
Speaking of superlative performances, Maier—a name unfamiliar to this or any South Florida stage—is a captivating discovery. He endows Alan Strang with rangy movements and an alien charisma, full-throatedly embracing his character’s bestial dysfunction. In this tensile interpretation, he’s both a slinky trickster and a live wire that could snap at any time. Even has spinal column, shown to us before we see his face, has personality.
Hilton, likewise, is perfection in the far less showy role, delivering Dysart’s voluminous monologues with a ratcheting sense of malaise and despair until, by the end, he’s as broken as his patient, beseeching his dwindling audience like some mad Shakespearean king (his kingdom for a horse?).
Elsewhere, Anne-Marie Cusson memorably embodies barrister Hesther Salomon, the grounded foil to Dysart’s existential crisis. And Mallory Newbrough delivers a flirtatious and brave embodiment of the small but pivotal role of Jill Mason, the love interest who unwittingly facilitates Alan’s climactic breakdown.
But the show’s brightest star is its director, J. Barry Lewis. He not only guides his actors through challenging, sensitive terrain—Maier and Newbrough boldly perform a potentially vulnerable nude scene without a hint of self-consciousness—but he’s responsible for the play’s bracing theatrical vision, from his five balletic horses—Domenic Servidio, Austin Carroll, Nicholas Lovalvo, Robert Richards Jr. and Frank Vomero trot and champ in mesmerizing unison—to the fluid blocking that breaks down temporal and spatial barriers on the mostly spartan stage. Lewis helms one of the finest depictions of hypnosis I’ve ever seen on a stage, and in one clever, subtle touch, Maier manages to rearrange the scenic furniture while fully invested in one of Alan Strang’s tantrums.
The uncluttered Anne Mundell set’s signature element is the giant EQUUS lettering projected onto the brick wall at the back of the stage, which is helpful in case you forget what show you’re watching. But Kirk Bookman’s lighting design is the show’s greatest technical tour de force, creating the equine shadows, the pointed spotlights, the radiant effect of light streaming through invisible window blinds, the dexterous transitions between time and place, the deathly flashes of red during the harrowing finale.
In polite company, you may exhale at the play’s urgent blackout, delighted to escape the mental dystopia and return home. More likely, if you’re being honest, you’ll just want to watch it again.
“Equus” runs through June 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets run $75. Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.