Sir Peter Shaffer, knighted in 2001, has given us scores of plays, with Amadeus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Equus the best known of them. Equus is a detective story of sorts as a psychiatrist tries to find out why a 17-year-old boy blinded six horses. The 1975 Broadway production of Equus starred Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth, and won the Tony Award as Best Play. Firth also starred in the film version with Richard Burton. A 2007 London and 2008 Broadway production starring Daniel Radcliffe as the youth was acclaimed.
Now the very enterprising Matthew C. Logan brings a revival to the Frenetic Theater, funded by a Kickstarter campaign, with the production serving as his thesis for an MFA in directing. The execution:
Shaffer is a lyrical writer who can express complex ideas in flowing language, and also has a keen visual sense, so that what you see can be more important than what you hear. I saw the original Broadway production, and also a dramatically different New Theatre production in Miami in 2010, so I was eagerly awaiting the Logan production. It is astonishingly good, though flawed in some details, and rivals in many ways the New York version in its grasp of the subtleties of Shaffer's text.
Casting here is crucial, as the main character, surprisingly, is the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, not the boy, Alan Strang. Dysart is an academic type who yearns for an imagined, idealistic golden era of ancient Greece, and conveys his thoughts to the audience, often in extended monologues. Kevin Daugherty brings a vibrant stage presence to the role, riveting throughout, and also brings a keen sense-of-humor, dry wit, and irony, so that the monologues spring trippingly and amusingly from his tongue.
Ed Theakston plays the 17-year old Alan Strang, and captures his stubbornness and naivete, and provides a variety of interesting moments. He displays a touching vulnerability that makes Dysart's fascination with him not only plausible but essential. Alan appears largely unformed, however, a tabula rasa awaiting imprinting, while the play ideally would present him as mal-formed, someone whose capacity for social interaction has been stunted. There should be the inner tensile strength of steel behind his refusal to communicate.
The direction by Logan is excellent, and as I eagerly scanned my program during the intermission to see who had done the brilliant lighting design, I learned that he had contributed this as well. One of the great strengths of this production is the ensemble nature of the acting - Logan has created a unity of tone that is remarkable. Mykle McCoslin plays Hesther Saloman, a magistrate who persuades Dysart to take on Alan as a patient, and who feels an appreciation of Dysart and a warmth for him. McCoslin has the beauty of a young Ava Gardner, and lights up the stage with her presence.
The parents of Alan, Dora and Frank, are played by Jody T. Morse and Rhett Martinez, and these actors are wonderful, finding the humanity in their strongly-held though misguided views of the world. Natasha Marie Gualy plays Jill Mason, who introduces Alan to the stables where he works weekends - she forms an attachment to Alan. She enters late in the play, and is charming, convincing and very attractive.
Thus may be the spot to mention that there is male and female frontal nudity in the play, not gratuitous but organic to the plot, and that director Logan, and both the actors, handle this with taste and discrimination.
In more minor roles, Jillian I. Duncan-Poole as a nurse and Jefferson Ferguson as stable owner Harry Dalton are persuasive and interesting.
Now to the horses. There are four here instead of six, not for thrift, though I would respect that, but because director Logan has other purposes for those last two horse heads, a use that pays off handsomely. The design of the horse heads is excellent, with large bulging eyes, with the heads worn as "hats". While I have an affinity for the open metal heads used in the original NYC production, the heads here work equally well.
The four actors playing the horses are Eddy Lindsey (Spunkus the Great), James Glenister (Fleckwus), Kaleb Babb (Prance), and Eddie Edge (Legwus), and they are all good, though largely interchangeable. Their horse roles are pantomime, of course, and they deliver this with energy and timing, and a sense of equine drama. They wear chaps over jeans, and are shirtless, with black handprints and red markings on their upper bodies, but the effect is to make them look, when not wearing their headhats, like Native Americans. Unitards with a brindle pattern might have worked better than being shirtless.
The actors are on stage all the time, rising to enter a scene when needed, and this works well, although I wish Logan had made an exception for the horses, who lose some of their primeval lure by being too familiar. The aura of mystery, of another world of equine gods, is dissipated.
The staging is handled well with a few benches, and the stables are designated by some wooden slats upstage. These appear to be too new - I expected more weathering - and the slats look like pallets turned on their sides. An abstract set is fine, but I missed some of the gritty feel of the stables.
The pace is wonderful, and the staging carries us forward on the buoyant shoulders of Daugherty, who infuses the work with charisma and intellect. He makes Dysart real, as do the actors for Hesther, Dora and Frank, and their success launches this difficult play into the arena of triumph. Daugherty adds a keen sense of nurturing, not seen with Hopkins or Burton, that permits us to see his love for Alan. While Dysart is self-centered, and perhaps overly analytic, his concern for Alan ultimately makes him forget himself as he mourns the loss of passion in Alan, as psychiatry enables Alan to enter the world of the ordinary.
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The play ends with a tableau, a heart-breaking pieta, as Dysart cradles a broken Alan in his arms. Logan and this fine cast has seen the genius of playwright Shaffer, and brought this masterpiece safely to port.
This revival of Equus has found the heart in a modern dramatic masterpiece, and a staggeringly brilliant portrayal by Kevin Daugherty in the lead makes this must-see theater.
Equus continues through August 2, Thursdays through Saturdays, at 7:30, from Second Life Productions, at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 1-866-967-1867, equusinhouston.com.