Peter Shaffer’s Equus presents a greater than usual challenge to a university drama department choosing to undertake a production of the Tony Award-winning Best Play of 1973. Roles like those originated on Broadway by Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth require a depth of talent and life experience that not all drama majors possess. Shaffer’s ideas about God, sex, and morality might easily whoosh over the heads of actors in their late teens and early twenties. Finally, there is the play’s much publicized nudity, doubtless an important factor in the show’s more than 1200 performances in its original Broadway run, but an element that might prove problematic in a student production.

Fortunately, the students of Cal State Fullerton’s Theatre program prove themselves more than up to the challenge—perhaps not all that surprising for a program ranked among the top sixteen most highly recommended undergraduate programs in the nation, according to the most recent Performing Arts Major’s College Guide.

It’s been nearly four decades since Equus first mesmerized audiences in London and New York, yet the drama continues to fascinate, to move, and to provoke vigorous discussion. Why did 17-year-old Alan Strang blind six horses, this boy who loved (and even worshiped) these animals more than anything else in his life? Why is psychiatrist Martin Dysart so fascinated by Alan’s case that it becomes an obsession, haunting his days and filling his nights with frightening dreams? And what does Dysart mean when he ends the play with these deeply troubled (and troubling) words: “There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.”

You won’t find answers to these questions in this review, and you may not even find them in the post-play discussion that Equus will almost certainly provoke—but what an interesting dialog you will be having with your fellow playgoers, be they CSUF students, friends and family members of the cast, or members of the general theatergoing public, all of whom are hereby advised to forget the word “student” when considering attending this fully professional staging.

It helps that Cal State Fullerton offers both BFA and MFA degrees in Theatre Arts, thereby allowing the production’s brilliant director Patrick Pearson to cast MFA student Brian Rickel in the role of Dysart, the troubled, frustrated, disillusioned Londoner whose obsession with a patient’s case comes close to driving him insane. Rickel, less than a decade younger than the psychiatrist is described as by Shaffer, has the maturity, the gravitas, and the extensive acting résumé which the role requires—elements which combine to make stage vet’s performance an absolutely superb one.


Opposite Rickel in the role of Alan is 20-year-old CSUF junior Ryan Jones, equally dazzling as the profoundly disturbed teenager-turned-criminal. From Alan’s initial defiance to the trust the young patient is finally able to award his therapist, Jones’ journey is an impressive one, and presages great things ahead for the gifted young actor.

Supporting performances are uniformly terrific. As Dysart’s friend and colleague Hesther (the magistrate who sees Dysart’s help as the only way to save Alan), Grace Ann Murphy gives a performance of such grace and maturity that it seems hard to believe she is a CSUF undergrad. Jason Oles and Keiko Suda do powerful work as Alan’s parents Frank and Dora, who find themselves expressing their concern for their troubled son in very different ways. Eva Dailey makes a strong impression as Jill, the stable worker whose relationship with Alan proves a catalyst to the troubled boy’s act of violence. In smaller roles, Lindsey Kelly (Nurse), Nick Waaland (Horseman), and Michael Martinez-Hamilton (Harry Dalton) all deliver confident, accomplished performances. Finally, a sextet of young male actors (Joshua Bross, Mark Bartlett, Chris Hayhurst, Blake Prentiss, Donald Russell, and Waaland) don wire-sculpted horse heads and elevated hooves to portray the six stallions integral to Alan’s crime, with Waaland excelling in the pivotal role of Alan’s favorite, Nugget. The talented sixsome have clearly done their equestrian homework, making us believe that they truly are the creatures who so fascinate Alan Strang.

Pearson and his stellar design team have converted the thrust stage of the Young Theatre at the state-of-the-art Joseph Clayes III Performing Arts Center into a equestrian stable, making the audience flies on three of its walls. Scenic designer Joe Holbrook, lighting designer Nick Van Houten, sound designer W. Ryan Creasy, costume designer Rachael Lorenzetti, and hair-makeup designer Lesly Ceballos (all CSUF students working with faculty advisors) have combined their talents to make a production with as striking a look and sound as any you’ll see in the best of our Southern California mid-sized Equity theaters. I particularly liked the use of silhouettes and shadows, the lights which shine from the horse’s alien-like eyes, Kayla Aguirre’s stylized head and hoof designs, and the equine sounds that surround the audience at key moments,

Following Shaffer’s original stage direction, Pearson keeps the entire cast onstage almost constantly throughout the performance, both witnesses to and participants in Alan’s story. The benches upon which they sit and several additional ones are the only items of furniture on the otherwise bare wood stage. At one crucial moment, a large square of stage floor separates from the rest of the flooring, manipulated by the young male ensemble to revolve ever faster in a vertiginous, high-speed simulation of Alan’s ride atop Nugget.

Finally, as regards the play’s extended nude scene, Pearson and his lighting designer protect Jones’ and Dailey’s modesty by staging the scene in the dimmest of lights, preserving Shaffer’s intentions without placing students in a potentially awkward position vis-à-vis parents, classmates, and friends.

Not every school is up to the challenge of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Cal State Fullerton most definitely is, making this production not merely student theater at its best. This is theater at its very best. Period.

Young Theatre, California State University, Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
November 20, 2010
Photos: Edwin Lockwood

Comments are closed.