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Red Herring’s Gripping, Smoldering Equus at Franklinton Playhouse

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Red Herring’s Gripping, Smoldering Equus at Franklinton PlayhouseMadison Lee as Jill Mason, Mike Writtenberry as Alan Strang. Photo by Lorelei Moore.
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Peter Shaffer’s provocative 1973 play Equus was an almost-immediate sensation through London and Broadway productions and revivals bloom seasonally. A triumphant new production, directed by Jordan Davis, opens this weekend at Franklinton Playhouse.

Equus centers on a tête-à-tête that slides between a battle of wits, fatherly tough-love instruction, and a cage match. Martin Dysart (Verne Hendrick) is a counselor who we meet in what he calls “professional menopause,” when court magistrate Hesther Salomon (Rebecca Zelanin) convinces him to take on a troubled, special young man. This young man is Alan Strang (Mike Writtenberry), institutionalized after blinding every horse in the stable he worked.

Alan Strang hit the end of that rope after a young life of joy being mocked and deferred, a little slow but knowing society doesn’t have a place for him and not comprehending what to do when affection is offered. Shrugging off his parents’ concern, Frank (Michael Moore) and Dora (Cathy Swain-Abrams), he falls in with Jill Mason (Madison Garvin Lee), seen as a shining beacon of hope. But Alan can’t let go of his obsession with horses, particularly Nugget (Benjamin Turner), building a sadomasochistic religion around these majestic creatures with the god “Equus” at its peak.

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Left to Right: Mike Writtenberry, as Alan Strang, Verne Hendrick as Martin Dysart. Photo by Lorelei Moore.

Davis’ fascinating take affirms the vitality of Shaffer’s mishmash of classical and mid-century modern techniques before the audience even meets the first character, with Benjamin Turner’s eye-popping set. A square platform on a manual turntable features posts around and a rubbed-smooth circle in the center, suitable for stables and a psychiatric hospital. The audience sits on high risers on three sides of the in-the-round room: a vertiginous view that conjures the rodeo and a Roman Coliseum, seating us in judgment of these battered combatants.

Nothing works in any Equus if Dysart and Strang don’t. This production excels here. Verne Hendrick ratchets up the conversational, even laconic, qualities of Martin Dysart. His Dysart has seen and done everything, mired in a morass of grey. This cagey nature makes his journey into believing in something again into riveting viewing; his “You god is a jealous god” roar doesn’t come out of nowhere, but he convinces us the old man might not have it in him anymore until there it is.

Just as important is the overwhelming sadness that Dysart’s helping Alan be whole again could tie him the world that had nothing to over the boy so far and remove the one “authentic” thing Strang found for himself. His dry, flirty rapport with Hesther (a terrific Zelanin) is a delightful shading of the character and his world along with being a needed respite from the ever-ratcheting intensity.

Writtenberry’s Alan Strang also approaches the character with rage at the center of his heart. The sexual hang-ups, the inability to understand how the world works, the punishing urge toward ritual sacrifice all comes out of a rage borne of the confusion at how easy the world seems for everyone else. We watch every hope of his get deferred or denigrated until he’s old enough to do the deferring himself. Writtenberry’s intense, physical performance makes the character’s brief moments of ease heartbreaking and fraught. His impassioned, incantatory speech surrounded by the horses and atop one plays that scene as performative catharsis (semi-) obscuring the catharsis denied and it’s mesmerizing. Madison Garvin Lee’s Jill, in all scenes but especially the climax, is dazzling as the one “normal” (to whatever extent that word can apply to any of us) person who dares to enter the upside-down world Strang has been breathing to survive.

The technical elements here are homespun enough to not create a distance from the audience while being evocative and haunting, starting with the basic concept that the world is on an unstable spinning surface. Horse Heads and Hooves – designed by Michael Herring – are abstracted enough to let us see the actors underneath and built out of grim wire. The hooves have a ring to their percussive stomp, an echo that makes the psychological toll of rushing horses cut even deeper.

Equus is lengthy – the performance I saw passed the three-hour mark by a couple of minutes with one intermission – and feels long, there’s no way around that. It’s a full meal. But Davis and her cast make the pleasures evident for anyone willing to dig in.

Equus runs through August 26 with shows at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit redherring.info.

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