Giddy-yap! Ludicrous Theatre’s ‘Equus’ takes risks, but stumbles on the basics

Peter Shaffer’s disturbing 1973 play about a psychiatrist (Dr. Dysart) who attempts to treat a young man, named Alan Strang, who has a pathological religious and sexual fascination with horses, is one of those theatrical experiences that stays with you. The last time I saw the play was more than a decade ago, and that production still haunts me.

Ludicrous Theatre Company’s production, directed and designed by Wayne Shaw, sets the piece in Nevada. You walk into Boho Theatre’s blackbox space, and you are suddenly in a southwestern stable, complete with sun bleached wood and hay-strewn ground. The actors are already perched in their spots as you take your seat, not unlike horses waiting to be mounted. You can’t help but notice a dude, way upstage, standing on a tiny wooden platform, wearing a horse mask and completely naked. And he (Justin Landry) stands there for 2.5 hours. Yikes. And Kudos.

Aside from the powerfully claustrophobic set and a few costume pieces, the Nevada elements don’t overcome the piece. This is still Equus, in all it’s naked, crazy glory.

As disturbed boy Strang, Ian McCabe is a phenomenal and robust actor. However, his physical stature proves both a strength and a handicap. While it’s intriguing and upsetting to see this big guy emotionally unravel, when it comes time for the climactic act one horse ride, the guy towers over Landry, suggesting more of a pony ride at the county fair than a soul-shredding gallop on a sinuous beast.

But, unfortunately, there’s a more significant problem here, and it’s Kevin Heller’s one-note performance as Dr. Dysart. Maybe it’s due to the cast changes (and other difficulties) Shaw hints it on Ludicrous’ web site, but Heller seemed vastly underprepared for the role on opening night. To be frank, it felt like he was simply reciting lines. (And it bothered me how his arms just hung at his sides for the entire evening.) His performance buried what had the potential to be great — particularly Suzanne Bracken as the empathetic social worker, whose scenes are completely dependent on Heller. She gave as much as she could last night, and I applaud her for that.

While I could usually look past one disappointing performance, Equus is structured in such a way that to have a less than capable actor in this keystone role makes the entire show buckle to its knees.

[Well, perhaps it’s not that dire a situation — the scenes between McCabe and his would-be girlfriend Jill (Kristen Bjorge) hint at the electricity this production could deliver — but it’s pretty darn close.]

But Dysart is our gateway into the world of horse worship, emotional pain and sexual repression. We need him to draw us in, and that doesn’t happen here.

Not even a handsome scenic design featuring a naked guy standing in front of me for the entire 2.5-plus hours can maintain my interest when the acting fails to engage.

“Equus” plays through Nov. 6 at the Boho Theatre in Rogers Park. More info here >

8 thoughts on “Giddy-yap! Ludicrous Theatre’s ‘Equus’ takes risks, but stumbles on the basics

  1. Worse Equus ever: Norfolk, VA, last spring. Dysart in a whelchair, parents a lesbian couple, movie scene replaced by live porn show, naked Nugget is 90-lb. weakling (and not hung like a horse). Crazy director made Equus into a “Dansical”. A pretty good Alan, age 18, with his parents also in the cast.

    1. Here’s a few sentences and a link for a review of the “Worse Equus ever”

      The latest offering at Generic Theater, a revival of Peter Shaffer’s psychological thriller Equus directed by Philip Odango, is an embarrassing spectacle. It is wildly misconceived, ponderously pretentious, and one of the longest, and most difficult to sit through productions I’ve ever had the displeasure of seeing.

      The audience at Wednesday’s opening alternated between states of lethargy, and juvenile giggling shock: once the penises disappeared, however, most just shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Only those who want their gay porn served up with a double helping of boredom will find anything to enjoy in this three-hour long fiasco. Odango’s Directors Notes state that he “envisioned the world of Equus as the merging of a psychologist’s office and Chinese Opera and Conan the Barbarian.” But the audience experiences it as the merging of tedium, and good old-fashioned American exploitation, and interminable length.

  2. I saw Equus on Broadwawy and while I thought Daniel Radcliffe was terrific, I wasn’t a big fan of the play. Dysart seems to envy Alan’s passion, almost to the point of romanticizing it. But I didn’t find anything envious about Alan’s predicament. He’s a mentally ill young man who needs help.

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