Despite awkward staging, 'Equus' manages to raise interesting questions

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 5:12pm

“This show includes full nudity and strong language,” read the signs at the door; “Mature audiences only.” This was Rude Mechanicals’ production of “Equus,” an ambitious and thought-provoking take on a modern classic. While not necessarily the most seamless production, Rude Mechanicals nevertheless delivered an intriguing and captivating performance of a difficult and serious work, even while managing to incorporate a fair bit of humour into the production.

The first act began unsteady and felt rushed by opening with a monologue by psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Gian Perez,) who tries to evaluate his new patient, Alan Strang (played by Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Jonathan Hull). However, Dysart struggled for a bit to find his pacing, and his conversation with judge magistrate Hesther Salomon (played by Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Maya Alwan) also felt slightly rushed and unsteady. The lack of microphones made some lines hard to hear and understand, weakening the impact of Dysart’s professed disillusionment at his role in helping Strang.

Dysart then met with Strang’s mother Dora and father Frank (played by LSA sophomore Hava Kaplan and Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jonathan Keammerer, respectively). The cast quickly established a rhythm in this scene that sustained them throughout the remainder of the first act, with a particularly compelling entrance by Keammerer, who re-established this rhythm.

The production featured a minimal set with a rotating platform and 12 moveable wooden benches. Wire horsehead masks suspended from chains on the sides and the back of the stage; simple colors projected on a white screen behind the stage kept the focus. Having the cast seated on benches at the back of the stage, however, ensured that sudden movements and noises from prop-rearrangement easily distracted from the lines being delivered. The horses' large shoes, in particular, proved to be quite loud on the stage floor, making some lines from the unamplified cast hard to hear.

The cast seemed to improve as the first act progressed, building to the climactic moment when Strang first mounts a horse onstage. The wire horsehead masks and the simple set design contributed beautifully to the reminiscent tone of the scene as Hull mounted the shoulders of one of these “horses” and rotated in the center of the wooden platform. While the noise of the other horses walking around the rotating platform was distracting, it added to the turbulent nature of this scene. The ending, a yell from Hull followed by a five second blackout, was astounding, leaving the audience in suspense throughout the 15 minute intermission.

The second act was much steadier than the first, though some of the sound effects and costume changes in this act distractedly significantly from the dialogue. Strang’s date to a “skin flick” with fellow stablehand Jill Mason (played by Jill Garner) was particularly memorable, with the entire cast donning trench coats to play the movie audience. The contentious scenes between Strang and Dysart were also incredible in this second act –– the tension almost visible between patient and psychiatrist. Dora and Frank also delivered impressive performances in this act as Frank accidentally runs into his son in the movie theater, and Dora slaps her son out of anger.

Strang and Mason’s attempted sex in the barn, the climactic scene in this act, was quite moving. The overbearing nature of the wire horsehead masks added to Strang’s fear of being seen. The horses coordinated their snorts quite effectively, constantly reminding Strang (and the audience) of their presence. Mason’s abrupt exit along with the blinding of the horses was also quite well done, as the shrieks of the horses were met with turbulent music and a strobe light, heightening the tension of this scene. After being blinded, the horses left the stage and did not return for the remainder of the work. The absence of these cast members sitting behind the stage thus served as another reminder of the damage that Strang had inflicted on the horses. This eerily empty set was quite stunning, making the occasional distraction of movement from the cast during the first act worthwhile.

Dysart’s last monologue was perhaps the most engaging aspect of the whole performance, especially following tremendous performances from Hull, Mason and the horses in the barn scene. In this last monologue, Dysart questions the basic nature of his practice and whether his making Strang “normal” would sacrifice Strang’s individuality and humanity. Dysart was illuminated in the front of the stage during this monologue by a single spotlight, the light from this spotlight casting shadows on the rest of the set and the empty benches in the back. This effect, especially when contrasted with the loud and visually overwhelming strobe light of the barn scene, was exhilarating ––  the perfect ending to this turbulent work.

While Rude Mechanicals did have some awkward moments, particularly with sound design and movement onset, this particular production of “Equus” definitely had its moments. The talented cast and minimal set combined for a breathtaking finale and memorable first act, easily trumping the occasional inaudible line and awkward pacing. It was an interesting and memorable performance which left the audience wanting more.