by J.S. Alleva
The psychological drama “Equus” is as relevant today as it was four decades ago when first penned by playwright Peter Shaffer who passed away in 2016. In a society nose-deep in hand-held technology, getting out and experiencing live theatre, especially works as raw and probing as “Equus,” can be the very ‘sharp tool’ we need to gouge out the causes of our watered-down lives, and remind ourselves how to feel. This type of visceral awakening is the gift of Forge Theatre’s brilliant production of “Equus,” which runs through April 30th.
The play opens with a flashback, a tender scene between teenager and horse. The two are standing together, gently nuzzling. What follows is a retrospective dissection of events which led the very same boy, who clearly loves horses, to violently blind six of them with a metal spike. Inspired by real events, “Equus” is an exploratory dive into the psyche of an anguished young man and the deliberate, compassionate unraveling of his life by his assigned psychiatrist.
Through powerful soliloquies, asides, and flashbacks, the play shifts between the office of psychiatrist Martin Dysart and key childhood moments of Alan Strang, a 17-year old boy with an inexplicable penchant for horses. Collecting clues from conversations with Alan’s parents, a magistrate, and a stable owner, as well as Alan’s own memories, Dysart uncovers layer by layer the deeper causes of Alan’s behavior. Dysart then struggles with the idea that ‘fixing’ Alan’s mental state may be a crime of its own.
The play is smoothly directed by Suki, whose deep love of Peter Shaffer’s work is reflected in her director notes, stating “his are the lines that most actors long to speak…” This certainly rings true in the powerfully-delivered monologues of Eric Jarrell as psychiatrist Martin Dysart. Jarrell’s inquisitive spark and low-boiling desperation add depth to a major aspect of the play: that pain that comes from a life of heightened passion (like Alan’s) may be equal to the pain that comes from numbing it. Jarrell’s touching performance sheds light on some of life’s big questions and leaves us pulsing with our own.
Another key standout is Matt Ronzani as Alan Strang. Ronzani deftly maneuvers across the broad range required for the role–from wide-eyed youth, to mercurial teenager, to sexually-driven young man—and takes us on a wild and fully-committed ride through Alan’s mind. Ronzani is fearless, and not because he strips down to nothing, which he does, but because he strips bare his own soul. His transcendent performance rises in places to dizzying heights.
Frank Strang, Alan’s father, is also powerfully drawn by Lenny Grossman. Relatively new to Philadelphia theatre, Grossman has a long history of Chicago-based award-winning performance, and his heart-rending portrayal of a man tormented by his son’s aberrant behavior (as well as things revealed later) has the gut punch of truth. Alan’s mother Dora Strang, played tenderly by Teri Maxwell, also reveals the righteous and sometimes defensive tone of a loving parent of a troubled child. Stable co-worker Jill Mason is played with cheerful abandon by Tiffany Moskow, whose buoyancy offers much-needed balance to Alan’s edginess in later scenes. Moskow’s performance is surprisingly tender and genuine.
Rounding out the cast are Laura Cohn as the angel-voiced and compassionate magistrate Hesther Saloman; Denise McBride as the no-nonsense Nurse; and stage veteran Murray Kramer as stable owner Harry Dalton. Horses 1-5 are played with somber exactness by Anne Lannak, Stefanie Nicolosi, Patrick McGurk, Kat Wylde and Christopher Ritsick who doubles as the devilish, uppity Horseman in a key scene with Alan. Most notable among the Horses, and a standout in his first-ever stage performance, is Brian Viksne, whose terrifyingly calm and larger-than-life portrayal of Nugget in the play’s climactic scene gave this reviewer chills that lingered through the weekend.
Many in the “Equus” cast are new to Forge, and several have worked with director Suki at other venues. There is a freshness to the ensemble, likely drawn together by the intensity and brilliance of a masterful script and a common desire to create something real on stage, together.
Forge’s black box frame and simple set design by Suki welcomes the audience straight into the barnyard, with blanketed (and very real) hay bales, horse tack, and a yard of painted grass and brick. The bales are placed in three corners, spreading the action around and allowing unique vantages for different audience sections. Beyond the bales’ obvious uses, they serve also as counseling couch, hospital bed, and whatever else the scenes require. A giant barn door scrim flanking the lobby entry also foreshadows an ominous scene to come.
The lighting and sound design by Clem Mirto is so subtle, it is almost imperceptible, which keeps the focus on the action. In one scene, however, the ‘sound’ made by the horses is so chilling, it is difficult to tell whether the sound is human, electronic, or supernatural.
Special mention goes to Danielle Reidel and Burton Merriam for the eerily-perfect Horse costumes, with provocatively-tight leather laced-up vests suggesting bondage and sensual power, slim brown pants evoking sinewy musculature, and open-frame bronze-wired ‘Horse Head’ masks, capturing the regal animals’ gestures while also revealing the emotionless faces of their human wearers.
In the spirit of transparency, the sudden onset of the theatre’s A/C unit midway through the play was mildly disruptive, along with a few inconsistencies in British accents. Beyond that, Friday’s opening trotted steadily and poignantly forward, through the mental landscape of boy and psychiatrist, to a powerful and satisfying climax.
Forge’s production of “Equus” is not for the faint of heart, nor is it viewable for anyone under 18. It is highly recommended, however, for adults intrigued by the inner workings of the human mind, by the connection between innocence and passion, and by the odd web that trauma can weave throughout our lives. This play shines light on the unwitting sacrifices we make in our worship of ‘normalcy,’ and how we may, hopefully, retain some secret portion of our inner passions and, in so doing, truly live.
The play is performed in two Acts, with a 15 minute intermission. Full Disclosure: this performance includes full frontal male nudity, partial female nudity, simulated sex, simulated violence to animals, and a few occasions of profanity.
If you go: Remaining performances are April 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 30. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Adults $15. Online purchasing has an additional fee. Forge Theatre asks that you park on Washington and Main, not on First Avenue. More info at: forgetheatre.org/54th-season/equus/
241 First Avenue