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Theatre Review (LA): Equus by Peter Shaffer at the Chandler Studio Theatre

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Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus has been hailed as one of England’s best modern plays. Inspired by an actual incident near London where a boy blinded six horses, Schaffer went about writing a play trying to explain this aberrant behavior. Equus tell the story of child psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart as he tries to understand and treat this young man, who, besides his heinous acts, has evolved a psychosexual attachment to horses and literally turned them into a god called “Equus.”

Audiences were riveted by this detective story, and the play gained notoriety because of its celebrated nude scene featuring full male and female nudity. The play gained attention again when “Harry Potter” himself, Daniel Radcliffe, took on the role in England and then on Broadway. Perhaps inspired by this, or simply by the desire to resurrect the play, Artistic Director August Viverito has produced a very good staging in his tiny but well utilized space, the Chandler Studio Theatre.

The production is beautifully designed by Viverito, reflecting the influence of the original Broadway production, with audience on both sides of a central wooden platform that in this case revolves, with the help of the cast. The set is in fact the most brilliant part of this production. The performances are also quite good, with the Ark Theatre’s Jim Hanna tackling the part of Dysart, and Patrick Stafford as the boy. They are ably supported by Karen Furno, John Joyce III, Aaron Misakian, Gretchen Koerner, Skip Pipo, Michael Rachlis, and Lauren Schneider (especially good as Jill).

Rachlis, Joyce, and Misakian (as the main object of the boy’s affection, Nugget) do a marvelous job of recreating the horses by wire masks and body postures. I have said the play is notorious. Well, besides all the praise, Shaffer has come under attack for this play and others, in which he is accused of basically writing the same play, one in which an older man wants to dominate a younger. Some have also said it is merely the playwright’s attempt to deal with his homosexuality, giving the younger man mythic and godlike associations.

I don’t know about all that. After all most playwrights write about similar themes and even characters. My chief gripe with the play is a certain intellectual dishonesty regarding how Dysart should act. His agony is chiefly intellectual and thus it doesn’t grab everyone. The current production attempts to deal with this by having the boy be seriously sick (he stares a lot) and Dysart very emotional. The effect unfortunately is that it left this reviewer feeling that Dysart needed as much help as the boy, having committed the therapeutic no-no of transferring his own dilemma onto a patient.

But as I said, the production is worthwhile, and you can judge for yourself. Equus plays at the Chandler Studio Theatre until August 22nd, though it will most likely be extended.

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