Theater Review: ‘Equus’ at City Lights, San Jose

This multi-layered tale of a young man’s mental instability is perfectly delivered by one of the most stellar casts that City Lights Theatre has put together this year.

Equus
Equus
In Review

Equus

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars - 'Right on the Money'
City Lights Theatre Company, San Jose
Directed by Kit Wilder
Starring Michael Bates, Beth Boulay, Monica Cappuccini, Bill Davidovich, Sean Gilvary, Beverley Griffith, Claire Hein, Steve Lambert, Danielle Perata, Shane Rhoades, Celestial Tranquility, Michael J. West
Written by Peter Shaffer
March 17-April 17 2011
cltc.org
Review by

Guest post by Pat Reardon.

Equus at City Lights Theatre, San Jose
Equus at City Lights Theatre, San Jose

Written over 40 years ago, Peter Shaffer’s acclaimed Equus remains a disturbing, complex and thought-provoking evening at the theater. Especially when it is presented as admirably as the current production at City Lights Theater Company.  This multi-layered tale of a young man’s mental instability is perfectly delivered by one of the most stellar casts that CLTC has put together this year.

Alan Strang (Sean Gilvary) has been convicted of brutally maiming 6 horses with a hoof pick at a local stable. Saved from prison by sympathetic magistrate, Hesther Salomon (Monica Cappucciini), Alan is turned over to a regional mental hospital under the care of Child Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Steve Lambert). Equus is the story of Dysart’s dogged determination to peel away the layers of Strang’s psyche and uncover the motive behind his repulsive crime.

Steve Lambert is superb as the burned-out middle aged Psychiatrist who is charged with curing Alan. As he presses to uncover the keys to Alan’s psychosis, Dysart is plagued by demons of his own. Wracked with recurring nightmares, doubts about his professional ability, and his loveless marriage, Dysart repeatedly questions his life and the contributions that he has made to society. This role is central to the production and Lambert’s exceptional delivery and stage presence carry the evening.

He is well supported by Monica Cappuccini’s strong Hesther who regularly councils the doubting Dysart and encourages him to press on to help Alan escape his “pain”. Sean Gilvary plays the troubled Alan whose fragile psyche is deeply confused by childhood memories, religious teachings and parental conflict. Gilvary’s delivery ramps up over the course of the evening culminating in a dramatic naked climax that is disturbingly effective.

The years have not made Equus’ haunting story any easier to watch. In spite of that, the audience at City Lights Saturday evening couldn’t keep its eyes off of this outstanding production. South Bay theater-goers do not need to travel any farther than the stage of City Lights to experience live theater at its best.

Equus

4.5 out of 5 stars
Where: City Lights Theater Company
Directed by: Kit Wilder
Written by: Peter Shaffer
Starring: Michael Bates, Beth Boulay, Monica Cappuccini, Bill Davidovich, Sean Gilvary, Beverley Griffith, Claire Hein, Steve Lambert, Danielle Perata, Shane Rhoades, Celestial Tranquility, Michael J. West
Run dates March 17-April 17 2011
On the web: cltc.org

And… Greg says:

British playwright Peter Shaffer frames his 1973 psychodrama as if it’s a clinical examination into the mysteries of abnormal psychology. In reality, it’s the existential rant of a repressed middle-aged man struggling with regret. It explores the notion that the pursuit of a “normal,” rational life denies the existence of an integral part of the human psyche that cannot be ignored.

The play opens with a quartet of actors, adorned with equine masks, mimicking a horse-like motion as they trot downstage to the rhythm of a pulsating percussion. The choreography is strangely sensual, and it sets an eerily erotic tone that permeates the entire play. Kudos must be given to the moody, affecting sound design of the multi-talented George Psarras.

The spartan set design is embellished with four pillars reminiscent of proscenium columns utilized in classical Greek theatre-a recurring theme. Like a mute Greek chorus, supporting players are seated around a revolving center stage, entering or leaving a scene as their roles dictate. It’s a masterpiece of expressive minimalism.

We’re introduced to Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist who’s at a major crossroads in his personal and professional life. He’s reluctant to take on another patient, but the bizarre case of Alan Strang piques his waning interest. Suffice it to say the young man committed an inexplicably brutal act of animal cruelty upon four horses.

Steve Lambert’s pitch-perfect performance captures the essence of an intellectual at odds with his own emotional repression; perhaps brilliant in his chosen profession, but otherwise quite ordinary. He recites his frequent monologues with a credible erudition and convincing urgency. It’s his interplay with the other cast members, however, where he’s most compelling.

It would be an understatement to describe the exchanges between Lambert and the dazzling Sean Gilvary as riveting. Under the guise of therapy, they engage in a complex and agonizingly intense game of cat and mouse. But the stakes go beyond the bounds of an arm’s length, doctor-patient relationship. It’s a vicarious bond formed between two lonely individuals desperate to understand and rid themselves of their mutual pain.

Mr. Gilvary possesses a preternatural ability to inhabit the very soul of his character. Like the troubled teen that he portrays, both he and Strang possess a passion for something that is an inseparable part of their personality. As specifically addressed in the story, it’s unknown if it’s environmental or exists on a genetic level. Either way, it’s our good fortune that, unlike Alan Strang, Sean Gilvary is not ashamed to share it with the rest of us!

The penultimate scene is a visually stunning reenactment of the horrible crime, performed in slow motion awash in a flood of blazing red light. The imagery is indelible, obviously the product of a visionary director (Kit Wilder) and lighting designer (Michael Palumbo) with an exceptional aesthetic sensibility. Bravo!

Excellent support is provided by all, including Beth Boulay as a young woman whose feminine appeal tempts the sexually confused Strang. She conveys a precious vulnerability and natural poise that appears effortless. Monica Cappuccini plays Dysart’s close friend and the magistrate who originally refers the youthful offender to rescue him from criminal prosecution. Their friendship is sweet and her subtle portrayal expresses a genuine compassion for Dysart that hints at something more.

Alan’s parents, Dora and Frank, provide clues to their son’s extreme behavior. Evidently each has sublimated their own sexuality in the form of her religious fanaticism and his hidden addiction. Beverly Griffith and Michael J. West exude the deep frustration and guilt that any parent would experience knowing their own shortcomings may have contributed to their son’s unhappiness.

And honorable mention must go to Michael Bates as the stallion who carries the full weight of Strang’s lustful desire!

Ultimately, we are left with as many questions as answers, but the density of ideas it posits, rich characterizations and meticulous production values make this a must-see. Please hurry to the City Lights Theater in San Jose for a rare opportunity to witness a flawless rendering of a modern classic!

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  • Greg

    Bravo! I couldn’t agree more. A must-see!

  • David Scott

    I was really impressed by this production. Sean Gilvary did an excellent job of arcing his performance. It is bare bones, and raw, and everything that is good about the refreshingly alternative City Lights. Check it out!