We were at it. Day after day. Night after night. We limbered up. Long before the first members of the audience even walked into our space. Our space. Those visiting folks sat in stable boxes on both sides. They stared at us the way we usually stare at humans before they try to ride us. But this time, thanks to director William Roudebush, a Philadelphia theatre war horse, we rode our audiences into a dark world. A world that most of them probably had never experienced before.
We sensed that we were frightening more than one would-be rider with our naked looks. We intimidated them with the sound of our heaving nostrils, the smell of the sweat running down our muscles, the intimacy of our movements. We not only made the audience gasp for air in this confined space. We also drew them into a world of darkness.
Our violence was not the violence of brute physical force but the violence of the soul. Our souls. Our tortured, our barebacked souls. We allowed that audience to sit in judgment of a case where one of our best friends, in his young, human desperation, blinded us. Yes, we were ready to kill him and trample roughshod over the audience. Everybody seemed to know it instinctively. Night after night, it was as if people had stopped breathing. They saw what we did. They saw what was done to us during that night of intimacy. That night of horror.
At first, newcomers to the theatre would never guess that a scrawny young boy named Alan Strang (Tobias Segal) managed to master us. Made love to us, right then and there. And, eventually, brought us close to death. Gouged out our eyes, right in front of that audience—without a single drop of blood being spilled. Just movements and dark cream, smeared down our faces. It was not a pretty sight. But we wanted the audience to see. We wanted the audience to see not only the outer manifestations of irrational actions but the inner workings of violence.
Even though he was the youngest creature in that stable, the boy tore away the foreskin of his soul. Showing us, all of us, the deep guts of his soul. Ugly and raw, as the playwright Peter Shaffer willed him.
For days on end, the young patient, with his limited vocabulary, sparred with the psychiatrist. In round after round. The man with the Ph.D. and the many words cringed, tried different therapy approaches. To no avail. In the end, Dr. Dysart (Greg Wood) had to confess that, ultimately, he was the one who was sick. Imprisoned by the rules of normalcy. Tied down by invisible strings. Like Gulliver.
All five of us horses in our center stable box witnessed moments when things seemed to change. When the boy-man felt intimidated and challenged. All at once. When he didn’t know how to handle the advances of Jill Mason (Karen Elizabeth Peakes). That woman-girl, she, who undressed, and tried to snatch our fellow away from us. Replace his love for us. We, who had become his horse gods and lovers.
She pushed. She pulled. She tried to replace us with her seduction. She took it all off. Managed to get him to follow suit. Right then and there. Our lighting designer (Andrew Catron), did not do what is done so often in this country: dim the scene so much that one could hardly see a thing. Not here, not in front of our stalls. We watched those two lovers in the nude. Bathed in light. Even though it pained us, we all wanted to be honest, brutally honest in our production. We wanted even the lighting to give everybody a chance to see. And think. And judge. For themselves.
Our set designer (Dawn Petrili) brought the audience into the center of the action. From the moment they walked into our stable. They. Were. Trapped. Caught in a mental spider’s web. Tangled and knotted up in our pain. Our passion.
In the end, we wanted to show more than anger, eroticism, and violence. More than temptation. More than even the failure to live up to one’s innermost core. Let alone the expectations of others. Take it from this horse, everyone on the team wanted to be honest. Brutally honest. Ruthlessly honest. We stripped down layers of expectations the way we stripped down to our bare skin (with the help of Susan Smythe, the costume designer).
Even the music by Aaron Cromie and the sound of fury (created by Aaron Cromie, Robert Smythe, and Bill Roudebush) pulled at the audience as if we were pulling out their guts. Imploring them to hear our pain, the pain of our boy, the pain of his father (Buck Schirner, who also played the stable owner), a man caught in his own mediocrity. His own denial. But the audience refused to be like him. They just listened. Listened.
We hit hard in our production of Equus. Right into the overweight belly of satisfaction and normalcy. We didn’t laugh. None of us. Not one. We simply heaved and blew out air through our nostrils. Showed our disgust, our subtle approval here and there. We inhaled with the pride and awareness that we were all part of one of the rare moments in theatre when all the arts come together. When there is an ensemble spirit creating the sound and fury of existence.
We showed what few have ever seen—raw, unprotected love-making with beasts. Raw, unprotected assaults on animals. The animalistic that thrives in many, many humans. We pranced. We shuffled. We sniveled. We bucked. We were horses, but we became men, and men became animals—all in one night at a small theatre in Philadelphia.
I am a horse. We are horses. I changed. We changed. But so did the members of our audience who spent a night with us. They will never be the same. We will never be the same. Never.
by Henrik Eger, Philadelphia, 2002
In 2002, EQUUS won more Barrymore Awards—the highest theatrical honor in Philadelphia, awarded by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia—than any other show in the tri-state area, including a Barrymore Award for Best Supporting Actor to Tobias Segal, one of the most talented, promising, and unusual actors in the US.