Overcoming flooded-out first night, EPAC boldy delivers ‘Equus’
Note: “Equus” was directed by Michael Swanson.
On Thursday, while floodwater eased into the basement of Ephrata Performing Arts Center like a diva sauntering onstage for her last curtain call, more than a few nervous stars waited for word about whether the show would, could, go on.
But when Mother Nature stages her own showstopper on your opening night, one must beat the old lady at her own game.
The modern classic “Equus” opened a day late but with more drama than even Mother Nature could conjure – both onstage and off.
“I had a moment…I almost cried,” said Ed Fernandez, EPAC artistic director and the lead of “Equus.”I was at home and I couldn’t get to the park but I knew the water was rising. Later that night, I was exhausted mentally. Then I looked on Facebook and saw everyone was offering to rush to the playhouse with pumps to cleanup. I almost broke down and cried because I realized how much people love the playhouse. It’s good to realize what you have.”
Although the playhouse suffered some minor damage to basement flooring, the show went off without a hitch and the drama of Peter Shaffer’s award-winning 1973 play actually paled the chaotic scene outside Sharadin Bigler Theatre for 2 ½ full hours.
“Equus” is a mystery, although not your traditional mystery. When 17-year-old Alan Strang (played by Jeremy Ebert) lands in a psychiatric hospital after intentionally blinding six horses he seemed to worship, psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by Fernandez) must find the cause to find a cure – that is a means of making the boy “normal” enough to coexist in society.
Of course, the journey is painful for the boy, who must confront the horror of his actions that appalled his bucolic English community. He delves into his erotic obsession with horses that is comingled with religious fervor. Through sessions with his doctor, Strang reveals to the world and to himself what compelled him to his senseless act.
But “Equus” is largely about the psychiatrist’s journey, as well. Heavy with monologues, “Equus” is Shaffer’s most successful play that he designed as a modern form of the Greek tragedy. Dr. Dysart questions why we become who we are, what charges violent actions falling outside societal norms, and whether it’s morally just to force his patient into a model of correctness defined by societal standards.
“A show like this has so many scenes that people really take from it what strikes them or touches them,” Fernandez said. “The greatest thing about this play is that it questions what makes us what we are. We all experience things in life, but why do certain moments make us who we are? Why are we obsessed with what we’re obsessed with? Nobody really knows.”
“Equus” is a cerebral, erotic show that earned Shaffer the Tony Award for Best Play in 1975 and also earned several drama awards when revived on Broadway in 2009 with actor Daniel Radcliffe starring in his first adult breakout role since the Harry Potter series.
Predictably, most of the press regarding the revival centered on Radcliffe’s appearance in the buff. And Fernandez said that is typically the case with any show delivering nudity, as “Equus” does. However, Fernandez said the licensing company doesn’t give any creative leeway for the nude scene.
“It’s contractural. The scene must be done in the nude or you can’t perform the show,” Fernandez said. “If you do it any way other than totally nude, you could be shutdown or sued. (Licensing companies) are getting very tough on that nowadays.”
Fernandez said usually the hardest part of staging “Equus” is getting one male and one female actor willing to take it all off in the name of theater. Fernandez said even that was relatively easy. Eighteen-year-old Ebert returns to EPAC’s stage from this season’s earlier production of “13.” Megan Baum, who was last seen in EPAC’s “Of Mice and Men,” plays Strang’s love interest, Jill, in “Equus.”
And while rehearsals for shows with nudity are often closed and gradually opened to other actors and production staff, Fernandez said his cast took a matter-of-fact approach from the start.
“It was a nonissue to us,” he said. “Even in rehearsals, Megan and Jeremy were like, lets get started. We had no problems with it at all.”
EPAC’s is an interesting cast with some new faces and some others that are a rarer find on Lancaster stages these days. Look for Rita Clarke’s EPAC debut as Hester Salomon; Elizabeth Pattey in a strong performance as Strang’s mother, Dora; John Rohrkemper playing Strang’s creepy dad, Frank; and Michael Sevareid, a veteran of Broadway and Off Broadway productions and a retired Elizabethtown College theater professor in the role of Harry Dalton.
Although EPAC’s staging is relatively simple, as it usually is for productions of “Equus,” this show calls for six horses, which play no small part in the plot. Fernandez used classic “Equus” effects and costuming rented out of New York City to wonderfully create the effect of massive animals juxtaposed with the boy who worships them. They are powerful scenes worth a watch.
While this is no “Willy Wonka,” Fernandez said he doesn’t want audiences to by daunted by the notion “Equus” is not approachable because it’s more thinking than action.
“I don’t want people to be scared of ‘Equus’ because they think it’s too intellectual ,” he said. “It’s moving and erotic and sexy. It’s very moving and real.”
Aside from nudity that might make this an uncomfortable experience with the kids, “Equus” would be a snooze to the younger set. So get a sitter and enjoy this heady stuff that makes it OK to wonder what kinky things your neighbor’s up to – and why.