The IU Theatre is doing a very sophisticated and deeply thought through production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Author Shaffer heard part of a story of a bizarre crime. A young man had blinded a stable of horses. Just this bit of a story so upset the author that he wrote a whole play, a psychological and mythical mystery story to deal with it.
Child Psychologist Martin Dysart, expertly played by Erik Anderson, is presented with the young man, Alan Strang, played with range by Bradley Fletcher by a sympathetic judge, played by Juliet Heller Eichberg. As the doctor works his way past the young Strang’s defenses he comes upon an early childhood sexual thrill of a ride on horseback that was brutally interrupted by the boy’s father, played with appropriate stiffness by Chris Nelson. The doctor works on through the boy’s mother, played for both sympathy and dread by Coryell Barlow, with her deep religiosity and even belief that her son has been possessed.
As the play unfolds we meet more characters. Jayson Wickenkamp is the massive horseman and the massive horse who gives Alan his first thrill astride and many more later. Brian Hartz plays the sympathetic stable owner who hires the boy to brush and curry the horses and to muck out their stalls. Rachel Simpson is the stable girl who helps him and through her innocent, but decidedly physical love brings all of Alan’s conflicts to their tragic focus.
Equus’ Director Murray McGibbon with scene designer Jared Porter, costume designer Amanda Bailey and lighting and sound designer David Lapham have set the play in a very self conscious theatre. The set is a bare raised square with pipe railings and the simplest of benches. In some scenes it reminded me of a boxing ring. The lighting equipment is all exposed. Individual spot lights conspicuously light certain scenes. The smokey atmosphere makes the lighting moves even more obvious. The soundscape elements are mostly unnatural or technically altered. Costumes for the actors playing people are realistic enough, but the actors playing horses wear beautifully sculpted golden wire head dresses and walk on raised platforms. When actors aren’t in a scene they remain on stage. There is even an onstage audience to continually remind us that we are watching a play.
In Equus, as we learn a lot about the young Alan Strang, we also learn a lot about Dr. Dysart. The doctor feels as if he is in male menopause. His job, his marriage, his very life all seem unfulfilling. The doctor is even a bit envious of the equestrian madness of Alan. Peter Shaffer paints the young patient as a wild Dionysian figure and the doctor as his ordered Apollonian counterpart. Frankly, some of the analysis in Equus seems a bit dated and creaky, but author Peter Shaffer began his career as a mystery writer, a creator of "Who dunnits?" In Equus we have a rather compelling "Why did he do it?" And even a solid go at "What does it mean?"