Playwright Sir Peter Shaffer’s classic work EQUUS captures the dawn of the anti-psychiatry movement in thriller style, in this top notch AstonRep performance
Black and papier-mâché, the first horse head mask we see in the beginning of Equus is as magnetic as this well told tale (Technical Director/Scenic Design/Mask Design: Jeremiah Barr). On a shelf it might seem almost crude, but when animated by the horselike twitches and canter in place of actor Jordan Pokorney, while being stroked tentatively but adoringly by young Alan Strang (Sean William Kelly), it is so realistic seeming we all but smell the hay and manure in the stall.
With little more than a few chairs, the backdrop of a hospital room, and clones of this horse mask, the talented cast of Equus electrifies us with a re-staging of Peter Shaffer’s script born nearly a half century ago—one of those rare plays that becomes an instant classic. This was a time when the anti-psychiatry movement of Thomas Szasz was first taking root, a philosophy especially given voice by Shaffer in the wordy monologues of Equus’ psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart (Rian Jairell) who questions whether any involuntary psychiatric treatment is more pure coercion than cure. In this writer’s view, the brilliance of this script that catapulted it to classic status is in how Shaffer manages to distill these deep philosophical questions into a tight psychological thriller. The script is helped enormously by Jairell, whom this writer imagines could also transform philosophical treatises by William James into high drama.
AstonRep Theatre Company Stages a Psychological Thriller
And in the hands of Director Derek Bertelsen and this cast it is a thriller. We learn from the outset that young Strang gored the eyes out of six horses—a real-life crime that Shaffer heard of and then imagined in this play. This is an exploration of WHY this crime was committed, and through this a dissection of thoughts about psychiatry. More, it’s an exploration of why we humans in general think and do the things that we do.
Dr. Dysart’s existential crisis frames the action—is he helping or destroying the very humanity of his young patients? Does he have the right to snuff the passion of Alan Strang ,who is motivated most by his worship of an equine God of his own making—the title namesake Equus. Like Szasz, Dysart can’t get past the observation that it is okay if you speak to God, but once you think God is talking to you, you are insane.
Alan Strang’s pathology, we come to discover, conflates sexual drive with religious fervor. (Spoiler Alert!) By this reviewer’s lights, the pre-intermission scene re-enacting young Strang’s secret and orgasmic night time horse rides is in itself a reason to see this play. From his wide-eyed stares to his bare-all re-living of his psychotic break, Sean William Kelly as Alan Strang is electric. He is at once the sadist you never met, and that troubled teen next door.
It’s not just Kelly’s performance that makes this poignant fare. You too may walk away thinking how perfect the casting is for this production, and how so many lines and looks will haunt your imagination going forward. Julie Partyka’s portrayal of Dora Strang, the horse mutilator’s mother, will forever be snarling don’t-you-dare-blame-the-parents in your imagination. Robert Tobin will likewise be the poster Dad of a man trying to counter his fanatically religious wife’s effect on their son. Perhaps the biggest haunt of all, though, will be remembering Jairell taking on Alan Strang’s searing stare in the opening at the play’s close—wide-eyed, like a horse.
If you admire top notch acting, Equus is a top pick for your time. Those with interests in the history of anti-psychiatry should especially make sure to find time to see this production. This is a classic and anyone who loves a tight script that thrills and engages in every moment should also shortlist Equus.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Co-Artistic Director Derek Bertelsen
Alexandra Bennett, Robert Tobin, Malia Hu, Rian Jairell, Sean William Kelly, Julie Partyka, Jordan Pokorney and Andrew Whatley
Jeremiah Barr (scenic and puppetry design), kClare McKellaston (costume design), Samantha Barr* (lighting design), Derek Bertelsen* (sound design), Sara Pavlak McGuire* (casting director), Claire Yearman (intimacy/violence design), Claire Allegra Taylor (movement director), Bethany Hart (dialect coach) and Kamren Smith (assistant director, stage manager
Thru October 27
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3 pm
The Edge Theater
5451 N. Broadway St.
$20 (with student, senior discounts)
Check for Half-Price Deals from Hot Tix:
For full-priced tickets and ticket availability visit AstonRep Theatre Company website or call (773) 828-9129.
Photos: Emily Schwartz
Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago