Equus Review — A Thoroughbred Production of a Broken-Down Nag of a Play

Equus by Peter Shaffer, in a new production by AstonRep Theatre Company. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

American theatre audiences just love to be lectured about what terrible people they think they are.  Or so I surmise, based on many decades of theatre-going and the responses I’ve observed to countless plays on the topic of how sterile, bland, debased, deracinated, hypocritical, racist, and/or bourgeois are the types of people who go to the theatre on a regular basis and who, having received a proper lashing from the playwright, go right back to the guilt-ridden, bourgeois lives that allow them to afford theatre tickets and a nice pre-show Italian dinner in the first place. 

A new production of Equus by AstonRep Theatre Company. All photos by Emily Schwartz.

One of the most objectionable examples of this genre (just as prevalent in Hollywood movies as in the theatre) is Peter Shaffer’s warhorse period piece of a play, Equus.  The premise is a tad convoluted, but it involves a horse-worshiping young man who, somehow despite this worship, blinds six horses in the stable where he works by plunging a metal spike into their eyes after the animals “witness” his failed attempt to have sex with a nice young woman who takes a fancy to him.  That’s 12 blood-squirting eyeball-puncturings, to be precise, and yet the play confabulates a complex Romantic, Jungian and Freudian mythos around the depraved acts of this desperately mentally ill individual, positing that (at least in the view of the self-abnegating child psychiatrist who interrogates him) his act was a kind of Dionysian acting out, or a sort of religious ecstasy, motivated by a sublimated homoeroticism that is displaced onto horses rather than men. Indeed, sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy – and the sublimation of both – are conflated both in the boy’s mind and in the play itself (I told you it was convoluted!)  

Equus, in a production by AstonRep Theatre Company.

The psychiatrist’s “reasoning,” as such, is that while he has a strained marriage with a wife he hasn’t kissed in years and who sits by the fire every evening knitting, the young horse torturer (are the horses put down after they are blinded?  Presumably so, but the play never bothers to address this question) is somehow more in touch with his wild and passionate self.  And the further implication for the audience is that having lost touch with our own wild side, we can regain it only by shedding the rainments of civilization and culture and emulating the mentally ill who, this fatuous play assures us, are not suffering from an illness at all, but rather a more vivid and more “alive” form of existence.  It’s an absurdly poeticized view of mental illness and animal abuse that is nonsensical on every level except that of a dream – or that of an overrated Tony Award-winning play from the 1970s. 

(A biographical aside that may be worthy of note: I worked one summer in the violent ward of a mental hospital as a guard and admitting clerk. All of the patients appeared to me to be in pain; none that I observed were in a state of Dionysian ecstasy.)

Jill Mason and Sean William Kelly in AstonRep’s production of Equus.

The psychiatrist simultaneously scourges himself and envies the young man, no doubt influenced by the now-discredited notion prevalent at the time of the play’s writing that the mentally ill are not suffering from an actual illness, but merely have a different view of reality, which in turn allows society to exercise control over those who don’t conform to societal standards.  This theory, advanced by the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz among others, is actually much more subtle and interesting than this bare description, but in the context of the play, it merely means that Shaffer’s fictional psychiatrist valorizes an animal torturer. 

To be fair, Shaffer does include for argument’s sake a magistrate who argues that the young man is in terrible psychic pain that needs to be ameliorated, not emulated.  But Shaffer gives the last word to the child psychiatrist in a closing soliloquy that is simply bathetic. 

It also must be acknowledged that the situation that Shaffer posits is, at least, colorful, entertaining and thought provoking – I haven’t heard as much post-play buzz among the members of a theatre audience in a long, long time.  One can, after all, have a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theatre despite, or perhaps because of, a play that is ridiculous in the extreme.

Sean William Kelly’s spellbinding performance is a highlight of AstonRep’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

AstonRep does an enormously impressive job of harnessing this unruly beast of a play.  The staging of the interaction between the young man and the horses is eerie, unsettling and oddly beautiful — especially a poetic early scene on a beach.  The troubled young man is played by Sean William Kelly in an incredibly skilled performance – focused, intense, believable and absolutely riveting.  I look forward to his future performances on the Chicago stage and beyond.  The part of his excessively religious mother is played exceptionally well by Julie Partyka, and the horseman/horse is a marvelous feat of zoomorphic physicalization by Jordan Pokorney.   The other performers all acquit themselves well, and it is clear that the director, Derek Bertelsen, invested great effort into making this production work as well as it does.  Jeremiah Barr, the technical director, scenic designer and mask designer, also deserves special mention for making the play’s visual design so memorable.

Yes, it’s a sophomoric, silly and overpraised play, but AstonRep does a wonderful job in staging it, and it’s well worth seeing, if nothing else just for the post-play parking-lot discussions that will inevitably follow.

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