Peter Shaffer’s 1973 cerebral drama Equus (Daniel Radcliffe’s first role post-Harry Potter, which got him to strip down) has returned to Houston. And it’s more provocative and gut wrenching than before, as a psychiatrist tries to unravel why a teenage boy blinded six horses, without unraveling himself.
Encore Theater, named one of the top six minority theaters in the state by Texas State University, performed Equus three years ago and is taking another crack at it with a new cast. The fluid dynamics and scene interplays perfectly portray the challenging themes: mental illness, animal cruelty, domestic drama and the inability to cope. Heavy stuff, right?
Yet, Martin (the sardonic psychiatrist) and Alan (the doe-eyed horse-blinder) punctate the tension with witticisms making you, against all odds, chuckle in the darkness. The two perform a psychoanalytical pas de deux; they goad the other and relent in turn, leaving the audience in suspense, as you start to wonder who is treating whom.
Individually, the two also bring heavy hands to the play. Martin, who commonly interacts with other characters with a sarcastic nonchalance, delivers chilling soliloquies that break the fourth wall. Alan, on the other hand, creates a persona that’s empathic and endearing, despite being he’s a neurotic horse-killer.
The characters depict the bigger picture of mental illness in subtle distinctions, demonstrating that it’s more than just one traumatizing event or one person going mad. And the set design truly augments that telling as it’s stacked together.
Although Encore Theater is relatively small, founding artistic director Harold Haynes makes use of every inch of the stage. For instance, the back right corner represents Martin’s office, the middle-front is utilized mostly as Alan’s quarters, and the far left angle is the stables and barn.
Equus also portrays unique dual scenes that include Alan’s flashbacks during his sessions with Martin, but also allows for Alan to perform separately from the cast. He fluidly dips in and out of the scenes or remain adjacent without a blemish. The result: an inundation of emotions and questions.
The production really hits home, despite its obvious extremes. The relationships portrayed are much more inclusive and nuanced then they initially let on. The rawness and honesty of the cast shows that mental health patients aren’t always the ones that suffer the most, and also reminds the audience mental and emotional anguish come with telltale signs that shouldn’t be ignored or feared.
Through May 1. $25. Encore Theater, 4715 Main St., Ste. E. 832-578-1705. encoretheaterlive.com