Review: Prufrock Productions’ Equus

Written by: Peter Shaffer
Location: Vero Voce
Director: Bill Barry Jr

Anyone that lives in the western suburbs of Chicago would know that Saint Charles is a hell of a hike for those of us that prefer to live closer to I-294 or I-355… so when a friend asked if I would be willing to accompany him to see a friend of his in this particular production I had to take a moment to think about it.

Why? Because the drive, naturally. I had no qualms about the show, casts, or production itself… but the drive was definitely a negative. Upon arrival however, my friend and I were looking forward to viewing such an intense show that really very few community groups would even consider as part of their repertoire.

From those that had the pleasure to see the show far earlier than I had, had nothing but praise for the production, so naturally I had high hopes… needless to say the cast and the production team did not disappoint. Prufrock Productions created a relatively new theatre group: Industrial Strength Theatre. From their online blog:

Finally, the bored [board] created industrial strength theatre, a not for profit, non-Equity, professional theatre group in DuPage County, whose main purpose is promoting education and exposure to the theatre arts by performing in the suburbs what is commonly called “Chicago storefront theatre”, producing the edgier works that are rarely given voice in those communities. The founding members are Bill Barry Jr (artistic director), Dennis Brown, Lisa Savegnago and Jennifer Skidgel.

Equus is more recently known as the production that had a little known movie star (Daniel Radcliffe) in the lead as the young 17-year old stable boy whose love for horses eventually led him to blind six horses in a fit of violent passion. From the original press release in regards to the production:

Dr. Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist, is confronted with Alan Strang, a boy who has blinded six horses in a violent fit of passion. This very passion is as foreign to Dysart as the act itself. To the boy’s parents it is a hideous mystery; Alan has always adored horses. To Dysart, it is a psychological puzzle that leads both doctor and patient to a complex and disturbingly dramatic confrontation. This international success reached new acclaim in London and on Broadway when revived in 2008. Director Bill Barry Jr and members of industrial strength theatre lead the audience on this journey into the mind of a young man, whose passion and worship makes the examiner question his own life’s meaning.

The stellar casts include:

Dr. Martin Dysart Dennis Brown
Alan Strang David Rodriguez
Hesther Salomon Susan O’Byrne
Dora Strang Dawn Harkins
Frank Strang Ken Schaefer
Jill Mason Jennifer Torchia
Harry Dalton Steve Blount
Nugget/Horseman Michael Hab
Nurse Carly Vadnais

Needless to say, I was impressed with this production of Equus…

Where do I begin? At the heart of the production most people would be led to believe would either be Alan Strang – portrayed to near perfection by David Rodriguez – or the horse: Nugget – convincingly brought to life by Michael Hab. And at first I would be hard bent to agree, however, what I noticed is that despite the play naturally being about what led a stable boy who was insanely passionate about the horses he cares for to blind them in such a gruesome matter as well as the horse for whom Alan has a worshiping devotion towards…

However, to this theatre goer it is believed that the audience would connect most to the psychiatrist: Dr. Martin Dysart for whom Dennis Brown must be commended for bringing such passion and heart to his role. For it is primarily through the eyes of the psychiatrist that we not only start to understand and sympathize with the young stable boy for his gruesome act, but we may find ourselves questioning the lives we are living that could lead us down a parallel path of destruction if we are not careful.

Dr. Dysart introduces the audience to the parents of Alan Strang as portrayed by Ken Schaefer and Dawn Harkins, the father a no-nonsense possible atheist and the mother a schoolteacher with a devotion to her faith and religion. Ken – known primarily for making an impact with most of his darker roles (including Jud in Oklahoma) – does it again in playing a father with an iron grip on how his household should be run. In fact, Ken was so convincing in his role that I almost believed him to be just as harsh in real life had I not had the pleasure to know of him personally. Dawn does a wonderful job in her role as Alan’s mother whose devotion to her faith and religion delicately balances and offsets that of Ken, to the point that one could envision how the family life must have been for little Alan while growing up.

When the two warring sides of the parental front collide, it is not only the parents that suffer but Alan who is pulled between the warring factions in his life. It is due to this tumultuous family life that he finds a love, devotion and passion to horses that teeters a little towards bestiality. In fact one may go so far as to say that Alan finds more comfort in the skin and hide of the horses than the warmth of the human touch… Though Alan would never go so far as to what bestiality implies… Alan does find himself at odds with the concept and nature of his worshiping devotion when he is first introduced to the stables via a third party.

Jennifer Torchia is well known within the theatre community in a multitude of productions, so when cast in the role that becomes a pivotal part of Alan’s existance it is of no surprise that she would knock it out of the ballpark once again. Jill Mason works at the stables and has a definitive attraction towards Alan Strang that she is willing to put her own job on the line to bring Alan into the fold of Harry Dalton’s stables (portrayed by Steve Blount). Jill innocently pushes Alan far over the edge in her desire to sleep with the young man… and who could blame her?

The remainder of the cast did a wonderful job within the roles given to them but one of the aspects that I am most intrigued about is that (aside from Michael Hab as Nugget/Horseman) the cast sat on the stage off to the side, and when it is their time to participate in the dialogue they simply leave their seat and interact when needed then return when they are no longer part of the scene. What I find intriguing about this is that most productions allow actors to go off stage and more often than not the actors would review lines or chat, etc offstage. Being forced to stay onstage for the majority of the show they have to know exactly when their cues are from memory and are unable to review lines in case they were to forget.

How about Nugget? The horse “lover” of Alan Strang? Michael Hab is an imposing figure without the horse head and leather gear, but with it there is an added sense of impending doom almost to the point of a possible deity, which makes sense in the context of the production since Alan worships all horses and above all, Nugget. The only time that we hear Michael speak is as the Horseman that a younger Alan meets… but Michael’s imposing figure as Nugget is what catches the audience’s attention in more ways than one. In fact, when the first act was completed, Nugget stayed on the stage, walked back and forth and stood dead center… so when the house lights went up the majority of the audience did not know if there was more to the first act or if they were free to go and mill about. Nugget’s presence just unnerved them so…

One of the “issues” when a community theatre group produces an edgy show like Equus is undoubtedly the nudity… finding those willing to reveal themselves to the audience in the name of art and personal growth in their acting. Between the actors and the director they must find a common ground that all parties involved could be comfortable with. Nudity on stage, when done artfully and tactfully can be powerful to the theatre goer… or fall flat… and fortunately for this production it was the former. There weren’t all that many moments that the actors revealed all to the audience, in fact Jill Mason was also tactfully covered in her moment of nudity… and it is all of this that I have to give major props to the director (Bill Barry Jr) and cast for working around.

Being in a black box theatre… the set was relatively simple and scarce allowing much to the audience imagination. With a few wooden boxes / crates that were lifted into place or put off to the side, the production team and director trusted the audience to fill in the blanks and holes in the set and to great effect for the audience was able to focus on the characters and the acting.

All in all this was a very well-done production from all sides and (aside from the commute) one group that I may be interested in seeing future productions of down the road (granted all depending on the production).