Walking into the Downtown Arts Center on Thursday night, I couldn't help but notice how many young people — lots of them — were flooding the lobby to see Equus, an independent production mounted by Banta Productions and Thoroughbred Community Theater.
Like the show's lead actor, many of them had graduated from high school only hours before and carried a palpable sense of celebration through the door, adding to the buzz of an already hyped opening night.
Part of that excitement has to do with risk. Equus is a heavy-hitting psychological drama that tackles taboo subject matter and features nudity. Would a rogue production company pull it off?
A packed house was there to find out.
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Equus is often crudely and inaccurately summarized as that play about a boy who has a thing for horses and gets naked. But director Bo List demonstrates that playwright Peter Shaffer's tale is much more than a sensational ploy to fill seats. An intellectually probing show with huge artistic ambitions, Equus draws us to question some of the most fundamental tenets of humanity: What is worship? Is religion ultimately harmful? Is the practice of psychology really useful or does it drive out the uniqueness integral to experiencing life?
List tapped School of Creative and Performing Arts teacher Paul Thomas to grapple with these demanding and uncomfortable questions in his role of Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist in 1970s England whose life is changed when he agrees to treat Alan Strang, a 17-year-old stable boy who has violently blinded six horses.
At first, Strang will only speak in sing-song commercial catchphrases. Over time, Dysart coaxes him out of his peculiar defense mechanism, and Strang begins to share his story. As Dysart begins to solve the puzzle of the boy's mind, he grows increasingly fascinated and disturbed by the implications of his findings. He believes he can "fix" the boy, but at a terrible and haunting cost. He begins to understand that Strang has fashioned a kind of religion, that he, perhaps not knowing what to call it, worships the power of the horse, forming a connection that is primal and pure. To "cure" him, he will have to help the boy destroy his own gods, a premise that rattles him.
Thomas brings a gruff curiosity to the role, working in the round with SCAPA graduate Jimmy Betts in the lead role of Strang. The pair share a complicated chemistry. While probing into Strang's peculiar neuroses, the boy begins to push back, to ask personal questions, and Dysart is forced to confront his own neuroses.
Betts soars in the role of Strang. The intense brooding in his eyes at the play's beginning begins to leak as his therapist pokes at cracks in the veneer of his puzzling behavior. By the second act, Strang himself wants to lose this containment, eager to take a "truth pill" from Dysart, which gives him emotional permission to re-enact the events that led to his maiming of the horses.
The crux of Strang's secret lies in his most vulnerable memory, when he becomes figuratively and literally naked. Betts, who is 18, and recent Transylvania University graduate Amanda Jewell (as love interest Jill Mason) disrobe in a captivating, tenderly wrought scene that strikes at the heart of Strang's pain and confusion. List deserves tremendous praise for crafting such an emotionally moving and tastefully delivered scene. There is nothing garish or gratuitous about the nudity; it feels like a gentle invitation to view a delicate memory.
And then that memory explodes in violence. It is also where the show's artistic and technical elements converge to powerful effect. Betts allows all of Strang's pent-up emotional and spiritual baggage to spill onto the stage as he wildly stabs, rides, tackles and blinds the horses. Designer Matthew Hallock, an associate professor of dramatic arts at Centre College, punctuates each blow with crimson, staccato lighting to the beat of thunderous hooves, themselves a part of Susan Wigglesworth's equine costuming.
The standing ovation that followed was one of the few that is truly well-deserved.