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Monday, April 08, 2013

Lots of Horsepower in Spotlighters' Equus

When Spotlighters Theatre Artistic Director Fuzz Roark enthusiastically told the audience prior to the performance of Equus that this production is “special,” he rather understated it.  In fact, Roark would have been on target had he called it a “masterpiece,” for that it surely is.
The 1973 play was written by Peter Shaffer and won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1975.  It tells the story of a child psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart attempting to treat a 17 year-old boy, Alan Strang, after the lad blinded five horses with a hoof pick.  Shaffer was inspired by an actual similar incident in Suffolk, England and crafted the play as a fictional account to uncover what could have led to this act without his knowledge of the crime’s details.

As Shaffer pens it, Alan has an abnormal obsession with horses that encompasses religious worshiping of and a sexual attraction to them.  Dysart’s mission is get to the core of the problem while dealing with what appears to be his own rather insipid existence.
Director Sherrionne Brown, who is no stranger to the cozy, in-the-round stage at Spotlighters, does an exemplary job of handing the powerful script over to the talented cast while staging a picture perfect play.  At one point, Ms. Brown deviates from previous productions of Equus and with the guidance of choreographer Alani Harris, presented a superb, mesmerizing dance scene by five horses that slowly surround Alan in a graceful but heart-pounding experience. 

Donned in velour leggings and leather harnesses (some readers may recognize) and sporting spectacular silver horse heads and hooves that were provided by San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, the dancers emulated large majestic horses in appearance and movement.  It is a striking scene that allows the audience to take in what Alan is experiencing.
Credit Ms. Brown again for her ability to impeccably transition to numerous short scene changes without the choppiness that such tasks would ordinarily entail.  Some of these locales include Dysart’s office, Alan’s room, a beach, Dysart’s mind, stables, a cinema, etc. So to accomplish these varied settings with only three benches that comprise the Spartan set is quite creative.  Brad Ranno’s lighting design is also a key component of these effects.  By keeping the set simple, Ms. Brown places all the focus directly on the performers as it should be in this performer-driven play. 

Another unique staging approach is that the actors who are not in a particular scene are seated as observers off on the side but still in view of the audience.  When called upon, they effortlessly appear on stage and by doing so in this manner, contribute to the fluidity of the action.

As exceptional as the staging and costuming are in this production, the acting takes it to another level.  In previous versions of Equus, there had been such theatrical heavyweights as Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Anthony Perkins as well as Charles S. Dutton (when it appeared in Baltimore’s Longrove Alley Theatre in 1979) who played the part of Dr. Martin Dysart.  I cannot see how Phil Gallagher in this production could have taken a back seat to any of them. 

Martin Dysart (Phil Gallagher) comforts Alan Strang (Thomas Bowers)
It would be tempting to overact in the Dysart role, but Mr. Gallagher does not cross that line.  Instead, he offers a commanding performance, displaying impassioned determination in ferreting out the underlying issues with Alan while realizing the emptiness in his own life.  Dysart pulls out from his bag of tricks such techniques as hypnotism and placebo truth drugs, to untangle the mystery as to why Alan could perform such a dastardly act. Never missing a line even during several hard-driving, passionate soliloquies, the Cambridge University (England) graduate and stage veteran puts on an acting clinic.  Gallagher also serves as an Assistant Director in this production.

Making his debut on a main stage, American University student Thomas Bowers also came through, effectively exhibiting the rage and stubbornness bottled up in the Alan Strang role.  The tension between the two main characters is palpable, which is how the play is designed.  Feeding off each other’s frustrations, they executed their lines and movements flawlessly with an abundance of chemistry and flair.  A sexual moment Alan experiences while on the back of a horse is tastefully but realistically presented as is the nude scene towards the play’s end.
Alan’s mother is an extremely devout Christian and his father is an atheist.  (What could possible go wrong with that?)  But it’s his mother, Dora, played solidly by Kathryn Falcone, who seemed to have the most influence on him by constantly reading to him from the Bible. 

Alan’s father, Frank Strang, well-played by Frank Vince, was concerned that Alan was mostly focused on the violent aspects of Scripture.  He destroyed a violent picture of the Crucifixion Alan had placed at the foot of his bed.  The boy replaced it with one of a horse with large staring eyes.
Also in the cast is Karina Ferry as Hesther Salomon, a court magistrate, who is one of the saner characters in the play.  She provides a steadying, soothing hand for Dysart.  Ms. Ferry, who had performed well in Tea and Sympathy, another Spotlighters hit, is also strong in this role.

Kerry Brady played nicely by Jill Mason, is a young woman who attempted to seduce Alan with tragic results.  Stephy Miller plays the Nurse, and David Morey is effective as the stables owner Harry Dalton.
Rounding out the cast are the five horses: Ruta Douglas Smith, Megan Farber, Kevin Gordon, Alani Harris, and Alan’s favorite horse “Nugget,” Warren Smith.  Kudos to all.

Equus is not your everyday boy and his horse story.  It is an intense, psychological drama that is gripping and that has the audience on the edge of their seats.  The production at Spotlighters is magnificent to the core in every respect—a complete masterpiece—and should not be missed.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The play contains adult themes and full nudity and is not recommended for children.
Equus plays through May 5 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St. in Baltimore.  Tickets can be obtained by calling 410-752-1225 or online
Photos by Ken Stanek Photography 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I share your opinion - it's very well done, and the cast is excellent. I've seen Equus a dozen times, and these horse heads are the best ever.