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Stage Left Theater takes on provocative psychological drama ‘Equus’

Nathan Patrick Nelson, center, playing the role of Alan Strang in the Stage Left Theater production of “Equus,” is flanked by “horses,” played by Nick Bailye, far left, Craig Hudkins, second from left, and Scott Mackay, right. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Nathan Patrick Nelson, center, playing the role of Alan Strang in the Stage Left Theater production of “Equus,” is flanked by “horses,” played by Nick Bailye, far left, Craig Hudkins, second from left, and Scott Mackay, right. (Tyler Tjomsland)

It’s kind of a surprise that Peter Shaffer’s controversial 1973 play “Equus” is being performed at Spokane’s Stage Left Theater. Not only does it deal frankly with the darker side of psychology and sexuality, but it requires one of its actors to be completely naked onstage. It’s much edgier and unremittingly bleak than your typical local theater production.

The nudity is perhaps the most well-known element of “Equus,” and it was heavily publicized when Daniel Radcliffe stripped down during the show’s 2007 Broadway revival. Troy Nickerson, who’s directing the Stage Left production, has suggested the show to various theaters over the years, but it’s usually rejected because of its adult themes and often disturbing subject matter.

“I’ve mentioned it at a couple places, and mostly I get looks of ‘yeah, right,’ ” Nickerson said. “But I really want this show to work and I want this show to sell, because I want to show that there is other theater out there that people will enjoy and support.”

“Equus,” usually presented in a stark, black box style, delves into the psyches of two characters: One is Martin Dysart (Thomas Heppler), a respected psychiatrist plagued by brutal dreams and stuck in a loveless marriage; the other is one of Dysart’s patients, a teenager named Alan Strang (Nathan Patrick Nelson), whose parents are concerned about his morbid fascination with biblical violence.

Alan is also, it turns out, infatuated with horses, which likely developed from the sexual frustration and religious fanaticism of his upbringing. He’s sexually attracted to the animals and also thinks of them as deities: There’s virtue, he believes, in a creature that is more physically powerful than man and yet allows itself to be bridled, harnessed and saddled.

But “Equus” isn’t just about a troubled kid who’s turned on by horses: Dysart, too, is struggling with the same kind of emotional repression, and his relationship with Alan deepens as he projects his own frustrations and desires onto his patient.

The play ends with a scene of sexual liberation that quickly morphs into an act of unspeakable violence, and it’s the part of the story that most people are likely familiar with. Nickerson, though, stresses that the intent of Shaffer’s play is not simply to shock: It’s a challenging story of sin, temptation and spirituality, and it’s compellingly told.

“I just love the storytelling, and how simple and amazing it is,” Nickerson said. “I think it’s important for us to experience everybody’s story. One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is that it terrifies me to do it. I think it’s important to do things that scare us, that we see things that aren’t always perfect and aren’t always happy.”

Removing the play’s most shocking images from the context of its story makes it sound like some kind of freak show, which it isn’t. It’s really a portrait of two troubled men, one naive and one experienced, who come to enlighten each other through their own fears and desires.

“There’s no reason to be afraid of this show,” Nickerson said. “It’s a riveting story about this sadly lost young man, and it’s about all of us in a way. It’s such a beautiful, powerful piece of theater.”

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