With ever-evolving ideals of what is considered envelope-pushing, in life and in live theatre, one might think a four-decades-old British play about a young man's harmless equestrian obsession turned shockingly violent act wouldn't merit even a raised eyebrow. Thanks to director Clay Hillwig and KB Productions, that statement couldn't be further from the truth with their current mounting of Peter Shaffer's hauntingly mesmerizing "Equus"; onstage through Saturday, August 23 appropriately enough at Nashville's Darkhorse Theatre (4620 Charlotte Avenue).
The show opens in the office of psychiatrist Martin Dysart, played to neurotic perfection by Michael Roarke when court magistrate Hester Soloman (Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva) presents his latest patient, Alan Strang (Daniel DeVault), a 17-year-old man-child who is currently a ward of the court pending evaluation following a horrific incident in which he blinded five horses.
As Dysart prepares to see young Strang, the boy's fascination/obsession with horses and his confused association between religion and all the equestrian is revealed. Dysart's own psych-evaluation-worthy tendencies also come to light during his exchanges with the boy.
The set design and stage direction from Hillwig and Joe Steinmetz lend perfectly to the theme with ever-popular wooden pallets cleverly turned on edge to create the set's primary feature which doubles as the wall's of Dysart's office, and a horse stable. Further enhancing the tense emotion of being privy to Strang's innermost thoughts during his sessions with Dysart, when not involved directly in the action of the play, the entire cast is seen seated around the perimeter much like spectators at an equestrian exhibition.
As Strang begrudgingly begins to open up to Dysart, his therapy revelations are physically presented by the appearance of other key figures from the events leading up to the tragic mutilation. As he recalls childhood memories of a disciplinary father (Anthony Just) and a meek but well-intentioned religious mother (Trish Crist), these two move from the sidelines to center stage. Just is splendid as Frank Strang. He plays a loving but emotionally detached father with great conviction. Kudos to Hillwig and company for very meticulous details where Strang's character is concerned. It's mentioned that he's an over-worked businessman in the print business, so my detail-loving eye lit up when I noticed Just's hands and shirt stained with ink. Bravo!
Others who move in and out of the pen as the action mandates include Jill Bradock-Watson as Dysart's Nurse, Andrew Strong as stable owner Harry Dalton, Hilary Morris as young Stang's romantic interest, Jill Mason and Marly Richardson, Paula Kay, Elaine Husted, Christen Heilman and Reischa Feuerbacher as the horses, with Matthew Robert C. Laird as the Horseman and Nugget, the four-legged object of young Strang's affections.
If you read my column with any regularity, you no doubt know there are certain actors I refer to as my 'theatre crushes'. Whitcomb-Oliva is currently at the top of that list, and her splendidly staunch portrayal of the proper-but-intuitive Hester Soloman once again proves Whitcomb-Oliva is a force to be reckoned with in the Nashville theatre community. Her British accent, along with those of DeVault and Anthony Just--as Stang's father--are, as the Brits might say, 'spot-on'. Unfortunately some of the other cast member's don't quite have a command of British accents, but it's never enough to truly hamper the intensity of the work.
Back in the early 70s when "Equus" debuted in London, nudity onstage was strangely enough becoming somewhat of the norm with such popular shows as "Hair" and "Oh! Calcutta!". That said, naturally most of the audience was a bit on edge wondering/waiting to see if KB Productions would follow suit, or un-suit, as it were.
To the playwright's credit, as the first act nears end, Alan Strang shares an emotionally revealing life-changing encounter with Nugget. While Strang doesn't literally disrobe in this scene, the intensity in which he and Laird portray the undeniable bond between man and beast psychologically strips bare both actor and character beautifully.
Act Two further undresses Strang's confusion/obsession as he grows closer to fellow equestrian enthusiast Jill Mason. It was at this point that it dawned on me just how clever Schaffer was to present Stang as the one truly obsessed with horses, as it's quite a joke that girls seem to go through the horse-loving phase, but to have flipped it to a young boy and his burgeoning sexuality must have been truly ground-breaking forty one years ago.
As anticipated, by act's end, the culmination of Strang's obsession and the audience's unspoken anticipation of the nude scene occurs. Again to the credit of the original playwright, director Hillwig and most notably DeVault and Morris, we feel like we've already seen them as emotional exposed as possible, so the fact that they're nude onstage is absolutely inconsequential.