The two horse heads flanking actor Roger Fristoe’s mantle are as far in appearance as they could be from the majestic, warm-blooded Thoroughbreds whose images populate Kentucky’s cultural landscape. The cold, severe metallic cages fit over an actor’s head and shoulders to create — along with oversized, physically treacherous aluminum hooves — a larger-than-life nightmare of a creature, the physical manifestation of a young man’s religious delusions, as well as the object of his violence, in Peter Shaffer’s acclaimed tragedy “Equus.”
Actor’s Choice, a new Louisville theatrical troupe dedicated to presenting classic and celebrated plays, rented the masks and hooves, whose designs are based on those of the original Broadway production, from a recent East Hampton, N.Y., production of Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning play. Actor’s Choice will open “Equus” Thursday at Bunbury Theater.
“Equus,” which The New York Times called “a kind of highbrow suspense story, a psychic and mythic thriller,” features nudity, sexual content and stylized violence. The horses serve as the focal point of troubled young Alan Strang’s devotion and torment.
“They become quite huge creatures; they tower,” says director Mike Seely. “The sound the hooves make on the stage will get your attention.”
Veteran actor Fristoe, recently seen in last year’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” will play Martin Dysart, an ambivalent psychiatrist attempting to treat Alan (Drew Cash), a young man who violently attacks the horses he worships. For Fristoe, who saw Anthony Perkins play Dysart on Broadway in the late 1970s, the strange beauty of the play left him breathless at first, and then yearning to be part of a production himself.
“I’m a great animal lover, so for me to love a play about the abuse of animals is pretty strange. But I think the beauty of the play and the ideas in it compensate for that,” he says. “I love how Peter Shaffer writes. The flow of words, for me, is the redeeming grace.”
The role of Dysart has been highly prized by veteran stage actors throughout the years, and the ranks of actors playing the role include Anthony Hopkins (in the original Broadway production), Charles S. Dutton, and both Leonard Nimoy and George Takei. The play enjoyed renewed international interest thanks to the 2007 London revival, which featured “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe as Alan, defiantly and disturbingly nude in his startlingly adult breakout role.
Cash first tackled the role of Alan Strang in a February production at Indiana University Southeast alongside Jennifer Thompson, who will reprise her role in this production as Jill, a stable worker whose arrival in Alan’s life threatens his precarious psychosexual stability. When director Seely saw Cash in the IUS production, his wheels started turning, knowing Fristoe had long wanted an opportunity to play Dysart. With one turn as Alan already under his belt, Cash was free to explore his character’s psyche even deeper this time around, bringing the audience into greater empathy with his character, despite his violent actions.
“The first time I played him, I wanted the audience to feel the innocence and the embarrassment that led to the anger. Because of that, I was a little hesitant to really let go in some of those places where Alan breaks and loses control,” Cash says. “But that’s important, because that’s where the violent act comes from. So this time around, Alan’s become a little more aggressive, but the place where that aggression comes from is still the embarrassment and innocence and loneliness.”
The suspenseful nature of “Equus” is psychological rather than plot-driven — from the beginning, the audience knows Alan attacked the horses that held so much power over his imagination and actions.
“Then we spend the rest of the play learning what led up to this — here are the influences in this boy’s life, here are the experiences he’s had that have led up to this, and this one culminating episode that triggered this psychotic episode,” Seely says. “You begin to see how vulnerable, given those circumstances, any of us would be.”
The structure will be familiar to fans of television procedural crime dramas, which often begin with a titillating act of violence and spend the next hour unraveling the seductive psychology behind the crime.
“From a low-culture perspective, it reads almost like gossip. You can’t wait to hear the next detail — what happened, why did he do it?” Cash says. “But then from a high-culture perspective, it’s a Greek tragedy with beautiful lyric writing. Those two things, coupled together, make mesmerizing theater.”