VCU Dance helps explore the human psyche in “Equus”

Photo courtesy of Jason Collins
Photo courtesy of Jason Collins
Photo courtesy of Jason Collins

A local production explores the psyche of a man’s obsession with horses and the effects he has on his doctor in Peter Schaffer’s classic “Equus.”

Cadence Theatre Company’s collaborative performance with

VCU Dance and Amaranth Contemporary Dance Company explores the turbulent relationship between Dr. Dysart and his patient, Alan Strang, through voice, sound, graphics and choreography.

Psychiatrists work to delve into their patients’ minds and pull out the fragments that keep them from aligning with societal norms. But what happens when the doctor delves too deep and finds himself almost becoming the patient?

A jaded and exhausted psychiatrist, the character of Dr. Dysart thought he had seen everything in treating child patients at the Rockeby Psychiatric Hospital in Southern England.

When Hesther, a social worker and colleague, begs to bring him a new patient, Dysart brushes off the notion until she tells him the patient has been apprehended for disfiguring six horses.

As Dysart explores 17-year-old Alan Strang’s madness, he learns that Strang actually has a sexual, even religious, obsession with horses plaguing his every thought. As the doctor’s relationship with Strang spirals deeper into the crevices of the teenager’s psyche,

Dysart does not know if he can bring both himself and Strang to the light, or decide if he even wants to.

“Dysart talks about Alan galloping. He wonders if he has ever ‘galloped’ in his own life,” said Anna Johnson, the show’s director. “For me, this is one of the most important messages in his play.”

What separates this rendition of “Equus” from others is the incorporation of choreography guiding the audience through the story. Johnson and choreographer Scott Putman utilize the en-
semble like a chorus, substituting voice with dance to enhance the story.

“I find a lot of beautiful symbolism in Scott’s choreogra-
phy, and for me, this play is very dream-like,” Johnson said. “In-
corporating color, video, sound and movement helps tell the story on a meaningful and deeper level. Often, we are flooded with imagery in our dreams.”

The play opens with the chorus entering the stage wearing horse headpieces, and as the show goes on, the chorus acts to connect and enhance Strang’s thoughts and dreams.

Even when the stage is full, dancers Matt Shofner, Evan Nasteff, Charley Raintree, Kevin Carroll, Steele Goldman and Jamar Jones effortlessly maneuver their way around the small space.

“Movement is able to create a bridge in an imagistic way that helps an audience digest the beautiful language and story that is ‘Equus,’” Putman said.

We felt movement throughout the work would be a wonderful way of escorting the audience into and out of the reality and suspended reality that exists throughout the work.”

Cadence Theatre Company has spent more than a year working on the production and searched diligently for the right actors.

David Bridgewater takes the more than dynamic role of Dr. Dysart, breaks him down, and presents a character that makes the audience feel like they are observing and communicating to Alan through him.

Jacob Pennington devotes every ounce of his being to portraying the tortured Alan Strang, which should sound exhausting, but by the end of the show the audience feels as if that is the only way to ensure the character is given meaning.

Every minute he is on stage Pennington wrenches and jerks the audience from one tortured part of his past to another twisted part of his psyche, pushing them harder and deeper into his pit of insanity.

Although playing the more static character of Hesther, who is in the midst of a tumultuous situation, Jessi Johnson rightfully takes her place as a standout performance. Her precise focus on Hesther’s calm demeanor foils the two lead characters.

Lauren Leinhaas-Cook and Larry Cook give praiseworthy performances as Dora and Frank Strang, Alan’s parents, and McLean Jesse is exemplary as Jill, a young girl interested in Alan.

Sound designers Ryan Jones and Robbie Kinter create an intricate score that moves and connects the play alongside the dancers and actors. All of the movement on the stage is enhanced by a brilliant lighting design thanks to Weston Corey.

Rich Mason’s minimal yet multipurpose set expands the audience’s view of the usually small space of the Theatre Gym. However, the true distinguishing factor is thanks to lighting and projections designers Michael Jarett and Joey Elswick.

Contrary to the idea of too much technology distracting an audience from the plot, the production team’s incorporation tastefully heightens the show’s distinct vision, as well as shadowing the actors in the scenes that require nudity.

“The message of hope and potential for change is really important for me,” Putman said. “It is a powerful statement to present the notion that we can address our current standing or predicament in life and be able to face it with a self-reflective honesty and humility. No matter how difficult our situation is, there is a chance for healing.”

See “Equus” on stage until Nov. 28 at the Theatre Gym at Virginia Rep Center.

Article by: Dani Brown, Contributing Writer

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