During the compelling revival of "Equus" at East West Players, theatrical gestures repeatedly ride past mere effect into pure expression. Under the capable guidance of director Tim Dang, playwright Peter Shaffer's celebrated study of a child psychiatrist and his horse-blinding patient slowly but surely pierces our collective viscera.
Slashing vitality has marked this psychodrama ever since its 1973 premiere at Britain's National Theatre with Alec McCowen and Peter Firth.
A subsequent Tony winner, Oscar-nominated movie and regional fixture, "Equus" is equal parts stylistic exercise, cerebral melodrama and spiritual mystery.
Ritual drums from the redoubtable Taikoproject atop Maiko Nezu's stark set cue the principals, who assemble upstage behind a central platform. The actors playing horses flank them, their open-wire heads (designed by Annalisa Adams) hanging above. A shaft of purple light finds Alan Strang (the fearless Trieu D. Tran) and a statuesque horse-headed figure (Wesley John). From the side, Dr. Martin Dysart (an affecting George Takei) speaks up.
"With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces," says Dysart, in clipped tones that hint at a void within.
Dysart, an unhappily married Grecophile, is intrigued when court magistrate Hesther Salomon (Jeanne Sakata) presents the Strang case. After inexplicably gouging out the eyes of six horses at the stable where he worked, 17-year-old Alan now communicates only in jingles.
Once Dysart gets Alan talking, clues gradually emerge. More information about Alan's lifelong horse fixation comes from Alan's religious mother (Dian Kobayashi) and atheist father (Alberto Isaac), and the boy's primal passion deepens the doctor's sterile alienation.
Throughout, characters interact in split-focus, with Dysart addressing us. The horses periodically shed their shirts, don their masks and execute Marc Oka's movements on raised hoof-wear. Act 1 ends with an erotic recollection by Alan in a stunning coup de theatre. Act 2, involving Alan's co-worker (Cheryl Tsai), reveals what transpired in the stable with electrifying force.
Dang honors Shaffer's stage directions and John Dexter's original staging without sacrificing creativity. Amid the ace designs, Rand Ryan's lighting is spectacular, and the cast is accomplished. Though his volume occasionally fluctuates, Takei builds Dysart's internal reactions to a moving coda.
Tran's lithe, guileless Alan matches him, devastating at the climactic naked meltdown. Their colleagues, who include Claudia Choi's nurse and Nelson Mashita's stable owner, are solid, and John's noble Nugget deftly leads an invaluable equine team.
If examined too closely, Shaffer's thesis upends itself. Alan's unfolding pathology is riveting, but Dysart's parallel path seems more dramatically artful than truthful. Still, given the gripping power that "Equus" radiates, only Freudians and veterinarians should mind.
Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., downtown L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. No matinee this Saturday
Ends: Dec. 4
Price: $35 to $40
Contact: (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes