It is hard to imagine a more hideous crime than the one that inaugurates Peter Shaffer’s controversial play Equus—the blinding of several horses by a young stable hand. The apparent senselessness of the act, as much as its violence, is what makes it disturbing. Why would anyone, even a mentally deranged person, do such a thing? Equus caused quite a stir when it premiered in 1973 and again in 2007 with a revival featuring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame in the role of the culprit, Alan Strang. The current production at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, directed by Kit Wilder, is also a highly provocative one.

The play is something of a highbrow detective story, with psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Steve Lambert) trying to uncover the motive behind the crime. Dysart draws out bits of information from his evasive patient (Sean Gilvary) and interviews Strang’s oppressive parents (Beverly Griffith and Michael J. West). Gradually, he uncovers the boy’s complicated relationship with horses, which involves religious worship and sexual obsession.

Though he wants to help Strang, Dysart has reservations about his own methods. As he reflects on his own dull existence, he begins to envy Strang’s painful and dangerous yet incredibly passionate life. Dysart equates psychiatry with human sacrifice: his patients are offerings to “the indispensable, murderous god of health,” a deity no more valid than the “Equus” worshiped by Strang.

One needn’t subscribe to this postmodern nonsense to appreciate the pure human (and equine) drama of Shaffer’s play or the artistry of City Lights’ production, which is emotionally intense and visually striking. As Alan Strang, Sean Gilvary inspires a range of emotions, from disgust to pity. He also beautifully accomplishes Strang’s harsh, piercing stare. The look is interpreted differently by each character: Dysart sees it as accusatory and Strang’s human love interest Jill (Beth Boulay) finds it sexy, while the sympathetic judge Salomon (Monica Cappuccini) sees it as a cry for help. Which, if any, of these interpretations is correct is for the audience to decide.

One of the most impressive parts of the show is the chorus of rhythmically dancing horses, which often serve as a sort of silent chorus, observing what happens onstage and commenting by stamping their feet. The actors portraying the animals wear skeletal masks that leave their human faces exposed—a particularly haunting effect.

City Lights Theater Company
Thursday–Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 7pm (March 27) or 2pm;
runs through April 17
City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose