From a small newspaper item about a teenage boy who inexplicably blinded a stable of horses, playwright Peter Shaffer spun a tale of psychology and mythology, of passion and pain, a detective story that seeks the teen’s motives but becomes just as interested in the demons plaguing the doctor who tries to wean him to normalcy.
The play is Equus – the Latin word for “horse,” writ large across the back wall of Palm Beach Dramaworks – which was a popular hit in the 1970s in England as well as the United States. Thirty years later, as reviewers were revising their opinions of the play, calling it a load of psychobabble, audiences again embraced it in a major revival, perhaps because of the crafty casting of Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe as troubled Alan Strang.
Now comes Dramaworks and its redoubtable resident director J. Barry Lewis to – pardon the pun – mount the work anew in its own epic production. While the case for the script’s quality remains inconclusive – its depiction of psychiatric methods seem particularly dubious and dated – its visceral theatricality is undeniable.
Long before War Horse, Shaffer chose to depict the steeds that are so integral to the story as human puppets. Donning skeletal equine masks and high-heel hooves, five actors become the horses that Alan prays to and later blinds.
The conundrum that is Equus is told in narration and flashback by Dr. Martin Dysart (cool, academic Peter Simon Hilton), a man caught in a loveless marriage, living a sterile existence he likens to “professional menopause.” Reluctantly, he takes the Strang case, appalled by the teen’s violent act, but envious of the passion it required.
Alan (scrawny, mercurial Steven Maier) is a tough nut to crack. To Dysart’s early questioning, he responds with advertising jingles. It is only with hypnosis and, later, a supposed truth pill, that Dysart is able to get the boy to open up and re-enact his intimate attraction to horses, which verges on a religion, and his diametrically opposite violence against them.
Crucial to the whydunnit mystery is randy stable girl Jill Mason (Mallory Newbrough), who takes reluctant Alan on a date – to a skin flick. Afterwards, she attempts to seduce him in the horse barn, in a nude scene that raises the ambient temperature at Dramaworks by several degrees.
The tug-of-war scenes between Dysart and Alan are the crux of the play, but there are several supporting characters and performances that fill out the drama. These include a magistrate (Anne-Marie Cusson of PBD’s Collected Stories) who debates the ethics of his actions with Dysart and Alan’s parents – his religiously fervent mother (Julie Rowe) and his argumentative, atheistic dad (John Leonard Thompson).
Anne Mundell’s minimalist scenic design is dominated by a central wooden platform, all the better to amplify the horses’ hoof beats. Kirk Bookman’s lighting works overtime, accentuating Alan’s orgasmic bareback ride and the climactic blinding sequence. And two-time Tony Award winner Franne Lee’s costumes, particularly the abstract horse gear, are a significant contribution to the production’s effectiveness.
Ultimately, you are likely to find Shaffer’s solution to Alan’s motives too tidy, but he knows how to wrap it in highly histrionic trappings that Dramaworks delivers with unbridled impact.
EQUUS, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, June 3. $75. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.