Folks nowadays think of Amadeus when they think of playwright Peter Shaffer. But Shaffer wrote two great plays in the ’70s—the other one being Equus. It’s not done as often these days, but is by no means the lesser of the two.
For those encountering Equus for the first time, it’s darker and edgier than Shaffer’s other work. It covers topics ranging from probing psychiatric inquiry and mental illness to religious adoration, sexual initiation, and the mutilation of horses—all tangled up in the mind of a twitchy, ferociously intelligent yet disturbed young man barely on the edge of adulthood.
Shaffer raises the theatrical stakes by issuing very specific instructions regarding how the play should be staged. Closely observed here by director Kim McCann, the guidelines invoke ancient Greek drama, a bit of Japanese Noh theater, and ritual in general.
It’s a challenging play for all involved, including the audience. It’s the obverse of light entertainment and City Theatre is going out of its way to remind viewers that it’s for mature audiences.
Having repeated that injunction, this is a show we highly recommend. McCann’s reading of this difficult script is dead-on. Intense and never flinching, she foreshadows what is to come without letting the tension dip, even a notch.
McCann gets a strong performance from veteran Rodrigo H. Breton as Dr. Dysart, the long-winded, world-weary psychiatrist. (Breton’s been at the Sacramento Theatre Company, as well as TheatreWorks, Thick Description and other Bay Area stages.)
Even more remarkable is Evan Johnson as the troubled young Alan Strang. Johnson is mercurial and tense, with beads of sweat on his forehead. He almost explodes into crescendos of action and words. This kid is into his part, and he is good. (This is the first time we can recall reviewing him, though he’s worked with Lookout! Players, Lambda Players and others.)
Sarah Rowland is also very good as Jill Mason, the girl who initiates a casual relationship with Strang. Rowland is open-eyed, curious, uninhibited and (initially, at least) unafraid. Soon enough, though, her character realizes she’s in treacherous waters.
The psychiatrist is actually played twice, with Crom Saunders doubling Breton throughout and delivering his lines in American Sign Language. Saunders (thin, silent, but constantly speaking through his hands) and Breton (portly and rumbly-voiced) are more like two sides of a coin than identical twins. The double casting keeps the viewer unsettled as to what’s going to happen next. That uncertainty is ultimately useful, keeping you on your toes.