Best known as the play in which Harry Potter showed his wand, Equus opened at the College of Charleston Thursday night with enough magic to easily sustain the two hour and 20 minute performance. Written in 1974 by Peter Shaffer, Equus is as gloomy and distressing today as it was in 1979, when it was the first production performed by the CofC’s theatre department in the newly built Emmett Robinson Theater.
Mark Landis directs CofC’s current production of this, “ritual of exposure” tale, set in a psychiatric hospital in contemporary England. At the start of the play, we learn that an emotionally disturbed 17-year-old boy, Alan Strang, poignantly portrayed by Spencer Jones, has horrifically blinded six horses with a steel hoof pick. Strang narrowly avoids prison time, thanks to the empathetic magistrate Hester Salomon (Abby Kammeraad-Campbell), who is hopeful that child psychiatrist Martin Dysart can identify the source of Strang’s psychosis, and perhaps even cure him.
Dysart, played convincingly by Evan Parry, is in the midst of what he refers to as “professional menopause.” His personal discontent and professional doubts are exacerbated by his young patient, in whom he witnesses the devout — if misguided — passion that is acutely absent in his own life. Skillfully orchestrated flashbacks seamlessly intermingle past and present to reveal the origins of Strang’s equine obsession.
An eerie set and dim lighting establish Equus’ murky mood. Chris Koenig, lighting director, shrewdly engages the audience with prolonged, tension-building blackouts and a spillover of light from the stage into the house, bringing a self-conscious audience unwittingly into the scene. While the unit set appears minimal and appropriately stark, its clever design by scenic director Austin K. Packer enables it to accommodate the action in surprising ways. Atop a spinning track inside the platform center-stage, horses’ galloping accelerates to perilous speeds. The cast, seated in sets of stadium-style benches evocative of both church pews and jury boxes, looks down at the platform. They are a powerful presence and remain on stage for the duration of the play, functioning as both judges and celebrants of the action they preside over.
A ubiquitous horse presence, similar to what exists in the troubled Strang’s mind, is imposed on the audience through six horse masks which, when not being worn, hang portentously above the set. The masks are the product of costume designer Janine McCab, who molded and soldered hollow copper piping into stunning, conceptual horse heads. Each creation is customized to match its wearer’s features, which are deliberately visible through the piping. The actors transform into majestic stallions and mares through spot-on equine movements and platform horseshoe slippers — their delicate balance had the audience holding its collective breath more than once.
This strong production of Equus handles weighty content with an ease and skill impressive for any company, let alone a college theater group. With the exception of inconsistent British accents, the 14-person cast puts on a stellar performance. Even the famed nude scene feels natural and necessary, thanks largely to Jones, who sweeps the audience up in his heartfelt performance. By the end of the play, Jones has made Strang’s love of horses so real that the audience is nearly sympathetic to his violent act, and the conflicted Dysart’s doubts are now our own.