The experience of seeing the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of Equus really begins when you arrive at the Clark Street Playhouse. While technically in Crystal City, the theater is situated off the beaten path. Located just past a low-slung motel and fronted by a grim gravel parking lot, it’s easy to forget that the Playhouse building is just minutes from D.C.
This feeling of disorientation continues as the audience enters the roughly put together theater-in-the-round through a thin mist of fog — a sign beside the box office warns that the show involves the use of haze, hay and full nudity. The set is a minimal collection of black chairs, some of which fade into the audience seating and a single drum-shaped riser not unlike something a circus ringmaster would stand upon. In fact, given that the space is finished off with two blocky bales of hay and a pair of metal horse-head sculptures suspended far above the audience, it would be nearly impossible to ignore the circus overtones.
Horseplay: Hardee and Henley
(Photo by Ray Gniewek)
And then everything goes black.
When the lights come up and the show officially begins, Dr. Martin Dysart (Christopher Henley) is describing a dream he had to the rest of the cast. The group stands about in a loose tangle, listening with the same intensity one would give to a museum guide leading a tour. It is clear that we, as an audience, have lapsed with Dysart into some strange near hypnotic state.
This is the first of several times the audience visits Dysart’s interior world as he struggles with the case of Alan Strang (Jay Hardee). The teenage Strang has been committed to the hospital where Dysart works for a brutal crime that has horrified the community. Over the course of the production, the audience travels alongside the doctor, learning about Strang and piecing together the facts of the awful case.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner has put substantial effort into creating a show that is intricate and impeccably crafted. The attention to detail pays off. From mood to movement, Equus is a production that hits all the marks. The actors move about the nearly empty stage with such assuredness one begins to believe there are walls and doors and corridors. With the turn of a foot and the drop of a head the cast transforms from their human characters into a team of horses. Lights drop out and back in like a long, slow blink intensifying the dream-filled text of the play.
While the heart of the show is most certainly Dysart and his young patient, WSC has assembled a fine group of supporting cast members. Particular praise must be given to Cam Magee and Bruce Alan Rauscher, who play Alan Strang’s parents, and to Adrienne Nelson as his attorney. elisha efua bartels, who recently performed in WSC’s The Children’s Hour, gives a solid performance in the smaller role of Jill Mason. Each of these actors, in his or her way, manages the most elusive of theater magic. They have found a way to fully inhabit the character they are playing. Each manages to balance their emotions, using extremes like rage and anguish sparingly. In short, the audience is allowed the luxury of forgetting that these are actors playing roles.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of either Hardee or Henley. Both occasionally go too far, crossing into that place where their effort is too clearly communicated. It’s not unlike discovering a poker player’s ”tell.” This is the face he makes when we are to believe he is angry, or upset, or disturbed. That is what he believes madness should look like.
To Nov. 26
Clark Street Playhouse
601 S. Clark St.
Likewise, there are questions raised by the curious costuming decision made for Joe Tippet’s appearance as the show’s namesake character, Equus. While going into full discussion of this would risk spoiling a key plot point, it bears at least a passing mention. Gardner has been so deliberate about everything else, you can’t help but wonder what motivation went into the choice. As the play unfolds, it becomes distracting.
But these are minor points that would perhaps go unnoticed if everything else about WSC’s Equus was not so seamless. There are most certainly worse difficulties for a theater company than having to bear the burden of near perfection.