AstonRep pulls out all the stops for demanding production of ‘Equus’

Mounting more ambitious productions was the reason AstonRep traded in its longtime home at Raven Theatre for the larger stage at The Edge.

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Sean William Kelly and Jordan Pokorney in AstonRep Theatre Company’s production of EQUUS.

Sean William Kelly (left) and Jordan Pokorney star in AstonRep Theatre Company’s production of “Equus.”

Emily Schwartz

In selecting the opening production for its 12th season, the first in its new home at the Edge Theater, AstonRep Theatre Company wanted to make a splash.

Safe to say, plays don’t come much splashier than “Equus,” running through Oct. 27.

“‘Equus’ is the type of show that has a name to it. People say, ‘Oh yeah, the one where Harry Potter was nude on Broadway,’” said director Derek Bertelsen, referencing Daniel Radcliffe’s star turn in a 2008 revival.



When: Through Oct. 27

Where: AstonRep Theatre Company at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway

Tickets: $20


Note: Show contains nudity and depictions of violence

Centered on the story of a psychiatrist and his treatment of a young man whose violence against horses is the catalyst upon which the drama hinges, Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play has long been catnip for actors and audiences alike.

Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins are among the performers who’ve sunk their considerable talents into the role of psychiatrist Martin Dysart, along with Radcliffe’s recent take on young Alan Strang. And there’s that notorious nude scene, which has attracted curiosity seekers for decades.

AstonRep is banking on those past associations to woo theatergoers. At the same time, Bertelsen instructed his cast, led by Rian Jairell as Dysart and Sean William Kelly as Strang, to ignore all prior productions, including a poorly received 1977 film version. 

“I told them, ‘Don’t watch the movie. Don’t watch clips online.’ We want to find the play ourselves. I want them to create their own characters,” he said. “Fortunately, Peter Shaffer wrote a beautiful play. He gives his actors a lot of information without telling them what to do.” 

The complexity of the themes Shaffer explores may come as a surprise to those whose knowledge of ‘Equus’ has been reduced to “the one about the naked guy with horses.”

“The entire play is ‘Why did he do it?,’” Bertelsen said of the horse stabbings around which “Equus” revolves. “And it doesn’t answer all the questions. There’s this idea of what is sanity and what is passion, good versus evil, and what we want to do versus what we should do.”

Sean William Kelly stars as the troubled Alan Strang in the AstonRep production of “Equus” at The Edge Theater.

Sean William Kelly stars as the troubled Alan Strang in the AstonRep production of “Equus” at The Edge Theater.

Emily Schwartz

AstonRep explores these dualities in an ingenious way that also happens to solve one of the play’s greatest conundrums, particularly for a small theater company: How to portray the horses?

Though Sidney Lumet opted for actual animals in his film version, theatrical productions have typically outfitted actors with masks to represent the equine characters. AstonRep is likewise taking that route, with masks designed by Jeremiah Barr, but with a twist.

“We double-cast the characters as the horses,” Bertelsen explains. “So it’s the two leads and the six others [actors] who double as horses. During the horse stabbing, you can see [Alan] stabbing the horses, but they’re also people he’s interacted with. It really plays up that dichotomy.”

To help meet the demands the play places on its actors, Bertelsen enlisted Claire Yearman as intimacy/violence choreographer, Claire Allegra Taylor as movement director, and Bethany Hart as dialect coach. 

“There’s a lot of working parts, it’s been a challenge,” he said. “It’s like an iceberg. The audience just sees the tip.” 

But mounting more ambitious productions was precisely the reason AstonRep traded in its longtime home at Raven Theatre for the literally larger stage at The Edge. 

“You walk into the theater and there’s so much more room. But there’s also more seats to fill. We realized, ‘We’ve got to step it up,’” Bertelsen said. “I think we did.”

Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.

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