Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: 'Equus'

Curio finds a fresh perspective on Peter Shaffer's 40-year old psychiatric thriller.

Review: ‘Equus’

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Eric Scotolati and Paul Kuhn in Curio Theatre's 'Equus'

By Jim Rutter


In his 1973 play Equus, Peter Shaffer depicted a detective story, inspired by a true event, about a reluctant psychiatrist attempting to unravel the case of a 17-year old boy who blinded six horses. The play's confrontation of religion with psychiatry helped set the tone for pop culture’s understanding of mind and behavior.

Forty years later, books by Oliver Sacks, shows on NPR, and hit TV shows and movies (Silence of the Lambs, Criminal Minds) have fleshed out the genre and broadened popular knowledge of aberrant psychology. In choosing to stage this otherwise-dated play, Curio Theatre Company needed to find a fresh, or at least relevant, angle for 21st-century audiences.

Find it they did. 

Liz Carlson’s nuanced direction emphasizes the inner struggle faced by psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Paul Kuhn), a man torn between professional doubts and the dwindling embers of his genuine desire to help troubled teens. Kuhn’s superb performance reveals a man at midlife, emptied of passion, dealing with a youth (a deft Eric Scotolati as Alan Strang) who has conflated religious imagery and sexual desire into a torturous inner tempest.

Curio’s focus further accentuates the more disturbing moments of Shaffer’s text, with Tim Martin’s lighting creating a nightmarish undercurrent of grief and desire. Kuhn’s interlocking wood-plank set sits us in a stable; here the remainder of the excellent cast dons horse masks to enact Strang’s fantasies.

Like his later play Amadeus (1979), Shaffer resolves the spiritually motivated conflict via envy. The defeated Dysart longs for Strang’s passion, and views any cure as depriving Strang of his sense of worship (Dysart describes that as the worst thing he could do to a person). Forty years ago, this explanation fascinated; today, it indicates a deficit of understanding. What will I do to this boy, Dysart wonders, other than reduce him to a “normal” state?

And that leaves us too to wonder, about what motivates, and what would prevent, the psychological turmoil that led to Aurora, Sandy Hook, Columbine? Even worse, what happens if we wind up like Dysart, and ultimately fail to know?


Through Feb. 16 at Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Ave. Tickets: $15-$20. Information: 215-525-1350 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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