By Chris Jones
October 8 2004, 3:00 PM CDT
Incredibly, some three decades have passed since Peter Shaffer’s once-edgy “Equus” first awakened London and New York audiences to the steamy and sensual fusion of first-time sex, wide-eyed horses, errant parents and filial guilt.
Most of the audience members at the Chicago revival from The Hypocrites weren’t even born when this post-absurdist psychodrama first galloped onto the international theater scene, snagging both a Tony and an unusually broad following in the 1970s.
But thanks to an uncommonly passionate production from the director Sean Graney, those young viewers at the Athenaeum Theatre sat riveted in their seats. This inventive, hyper-kinetic show might — and probably should — become the biggest hit of The Hypocrites’ institutional life.
In recent years, the popularity of “Equus” has waned, due in part to its talky nature, a certain pretentiousness, and a horses-as-Greek-chorus structural device that can become high comedy in errant hands. I can personally attest to that.
But its themes were prescient.
Although taking a cue from Sophocles, Shaffer re-popularized the mystery-drama in which the detective-protagonist must face his own demons to help his client. You can see echoes of this play in everything from the 1984 Clint Eastwood movie “Tightrope” to Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs” to “The Sopranos.”
Shaffer was part of an established progressive movement — his final conclusion that violence can be a component of desirable passion recalls what Anthony Burgess said in the novel “A Clockwork Orange” in the 1960s. But when it comes to freeing the form of contemporary drama, “Equus” was a trailblazer without peer.
This is not a script that rewards irony or timidity. And Graney was smart enough here to take a bevy of presentational risks and forge a production in which the stakes are barely removed from life and death. The result is a show that keeps your eyes out on stalks all night.
There’s no question that Shaffer intended Martin Dysart as a far calmer and more introspective individual than the one depicted here by Kurt Ehrmann, an intensely emotional actor who plays the shrink as a man in screaming crisis. It’s not a subtle performance (nor one everyone will admire), but it nonetheless drives the angst of this show in a way that really works. And when Ehrmann shows a softer side with the kid, it has a huge impact.
As Alan Strang, the kid in question, Geoff Button offers a truly splendid performance completely without guile or a single dishonest moment. He’s credibly British, credibly traumatized and credibly empathetic. And if you have all those things in place, you have solved most of the problems of the play.
Halena Kays, meanwhile, is light years away from the typical soft romanticism of Jill as immortalized by Jenny Agutter in the 1977 film version of “Equus.” Kays is perkier, peppier and less sweet. And especially in the famous nude scene, that works too.
The most impressive aspect of this show, though, is the staging. Thanks to a striking original score from Kevin O’Donnell, a deft use of a turntable by Graney and a quietly brilliant piece of physical acting from J.B. Waterman as Nugget the horse, the show’s complex, oft-blown scenes with the horse chorus carry astonishing power here.
When Button’s Alan throws his limp body against Nugget’s, the audience gets a palpable personal sense of the soft, wet, warm, complicated comfort provided by a horse. That’s the core of “Equus,” and I have never before seen it evoked with such sensual authenticity.