“This production will make use of HAY, NUDITY, and FOG,” reads a sign in the lobby of the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of “Equus.” Those three words – meant as a light caution to the allergic, the prude, and the faint-of-breath – serve as a more ominous warning for the rest of us. The words – HAY, NUDITY, and FOG – hint at the strange spectacle that awaits inside Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play: a deeply unsettling equine atmosphere, acts of stunning sexualized violence, and a murky psychological structure that tell the twisted love story of a boy, his horse, and a psychiatrist’s fight to discover what lies beneath the boy’s problems – and his own.
As the play opens, seventeen-year-old Alan Strang (Jay Hardee) stands accused of savagely blinding six horses. Dr. Martin Dysart (Christopher Henley) may be the boy’s only hope of escaping life in prison – or a life of pained mental anguish. At the request of his lover, Hesther (capably acted by Adrienne Nelson), Dysart reluctantly agrees to get to the source of Alan’s moment of extreme violence. Through 1970’s psychological methods – hypnosis, placebo truth-drugs, and dramatic re-livings of the days leading up to the event – we, along with Dysart, discover how sex, violence, and horses have coalesced to form a mangled vision of pain, love, and happiness in Alan’s mind. Nugget, a horse in a local stable (played with quiet poise by Joe Tippett), becomes the embodiment of Alan’s hyper-sexualized religion that makes him the servant of a God called Equus.
Henley, who was fighting a cold, is a suitably nuanced Dr. Dysart to Hardee’s dynamic Alan Strang. The two play their relationship with an opposition that, later, strips away to an underlying similarity. Alan’s neuroses and Dysart’s methods melt together in short, foggy scenes that shift seamlessly between past and present, reality and imagination, action and analysis. The play soars in the action – from Alan’s re-staging of his first, sexually-charged horse-ride with a strange cowboy, to his awkward encounters with understanding stable-girl Jill (played with resounding warmth and an unstable British accent by Elisha Efua Bartels), to his final frenzied act of violence against the horses.
The analysis, though, is less interesting. In contrast to the captivating scenes dramatizing the expression of Alan’s psyche, Dysart’s analysis – of Alan and of himself – often works to weigh down the exceedingly long, two hour and forty minute production. In the end, we hear more about Dysart’s relatively uninteresting midlife crisis than Alan’s more intriguing mental problems; Alan’s re-stagings become interesting spectacles to distract us from all the talking. Though Alan’s re-living of his violent act that we’ve been hearing about since scene one is visually fascinating, Dysart’s final fatalistic conclusions about his inability to help Alan are strangely unsatisfying. Of course, part of the point is that Alan’s problems, though more spectacular, are no more ‘sick’ than those of people that psychiatry deems “sane,” and that the idea that Alan can or should be “fixed” is misguided. Still, it all comes off as a bit uneven, and leaves the lingering question in the back of the audience’s mind: So what?
Ultimately, it is the WSC’s current of transformation that breathes the life into Shaffer’s play. The entire cast works to keep the pace and energy at full tilt, overcoming the long length and long monologues. The actors are almost always onstage, either sitting with the audience as dead-eyed observers of the action, or wheezing and pawing as the horses that haunt Alan’s mind. The play’s unsettling sounds and images – from our first view of Alan nakedly embracing a figure sheathed in an eerie horse mask, to the final crescendo of screams at the horses’ blinding – punctuate the scenes of action and analysis, drawing the audience in. Beneath the Washington Shakespeare Company’s expert transformation of hay, nudity, and fog into the haunting mental landscape of a boy and his horse, the question that remains in the 30-year old text – So what? -is almost a repressed memory.