The two figures onstage are locked in an embrace. One is a skinny young man with a mop of hair. The other is a horse.
It’s this scene that begins Peter Shaffer’s brilliant play “Equus,” a dark tale about a horse-obsessed boy and the psychologist assigned to treat him. Why would a 17-year-old blind six horses with a spike? This is the enigma that Cadence Theatre Company’s latest aims to unravel.
Any good mystery needs a detective and in “Equus” we have Dysart (David Bridgewater), a child psychologist slowly sifting through the spiritual, psychological and sexual clues that drove young Alan Strang (Jacob Pennington) to his cruel deed. Ingeniously staged by director Anna Johnson, we’re taken on a strange exploration of the roles that passion and worship play in our lives.
While Alan’s actions put the drama in motion, the focus of the show is on Dysart. Though a talented psychologist, he’s suffering from what he calls “professional menopause,” and has started to question whether his making children more “normal” may actually be removing their individuality. He has nightmares of being a surgeon in ancient Greece, carving out the insides of children as an offering to the gods.
The large-framed Bridgewater is known for portraying powerful and ferocious characters; here he gives us a vulnerable and nuanced depiction of the reluctant psychologist. Working with Johnson’s assured direction, it’s Bridgewater’s show, and he does an admirable job.
As Alan, the underused Pennington acts as a wounded animal. He’s confused by a world that he doesn’t understand, flying into a blind range when he feels threatened. His only solace is found through his sexual and religious worship of horses, which he rides at night in the nude.
Adding another impressive performance to her repertoire is Jessi Johnson as Hester, a magistrate and confidant of Dysart. Though many years his junior, Johnson brings the gravitas to match Bridgewater’s in their exchanges.
Portraying Nugget the horse, Charlie Raintree’s performance is impressive both for its mimicry of our equestrian friends and for the physicality needed for the role. Wearing a metal horse head, Raintree gallops around the stage with Pennington on his back as though it were effortless. Playing Alan’s co-worker Jill, McLean Jesse puts in a sensual performance of a woman as curious about the 17-year-old as we are.
Keeping all of this in motion is Anna Johnson’s electrifying direction, which is crystal clear in its focus and aims. If there’s any criticism of her work, it’s that there may be so much packed into the show as to overwhelm the audience. In addition to Shaffer’s engrossing script, Johnson has added choreography, video projections, Robbie Kinter and Ryan Jones’ original music and a powerful lighting design by Michael Jarett.
Scott Putman’s choreography highlights the sensuality of the horses and represents Alan’s fantasy of horse and man as one, while Michael Jarett and Joey Elswick’s well-crafted videos seem a bit much on Rich Mason’s small horse stable set. Also, and “Equus” is far from the only local production to suffer from this, the accents of the cast are of varying quality and place of origin throughout the cast.
Still, Cadence has put together one heck of a show, clocking in around three hours with intermission.
As the lights fade out, Dysart mirrors the opening scene, cradling a broken and naked Alan as his new protector. A new father has found a son, and a son has found a new god. S
“Equus,” presented by Cadence Theatre Company in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre and in association with VCU Dance and Amaranth Contemporary Dance Company, plays through Nov. 28 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Parental discretion advised. va-rep.org.