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Move over War Horse, there's a new pony in town and this one ain't gonna tug manipulatively on your heart strings in Walt Disney tear-jerky fashion. In fact, this horse is aiming to make you take pause and actually think about real human issues and emotions. Devil Dog Six, the new play by Fengar Gael set in the world of competitive horseracing uses the racetrack to examine themes of ambition, competition, ethics and integrity. And oh, yeah, there's even some bigotry and misogyny thrown in for good measure.
Commissioned by the InterAct Theatre of Philadelphia through the National New Play Network, Devil Dog Six premiered in San Diego and was awarded the Craig Noel Award for Outstanding New Play.
What a play sets out to examine and what it actually manages to say aren't always in equal measure and this is very much the case for the thin but enjoyable Devil Dog Six. The story centers on Devon Tramore (Sammi Sicinski), a female jockey in a man's world. She has just suffered a severe brain injury after a racing accident that investigators believe might have been no accident at all, but possibly a nefarious plan to put her out of competition. Devon may have made it into the boys locker-room and she can certainly cuss and swagger with the best of them, but none of the gents are really happy to have her there.
While in hospital, isolated in stimulus depravation in order to let her mind heal, Devon finds that she has the ability to leave her body and go visit the horses on her mother's training farm. Well, visit is an understatement actually. In true Dr. Doolittle fashion, Devon is suddenly is able to converse with the ponies in a whinny and snort form of zoolingualism. Devon bonds with all the animals but becomes particularly close to the most promising star of the stable, a colt named Devil Dog Six (Sam Flash). Apart from the wonder of it all and the fact that it helps distract from her pain, Devon's real delight in her new found talent is the edge that it will give her over the other jockeys when she's well enough to ride Devil Dog and fulfill her dream of winning the Dixie Downs. Devon after all is not just a gal who loves horses; she's a rabid competitor with a chip of being female on her shoulder and an insatiable desire to win at all costs.
But like any morality tale, there is a price for this kind of success lust and Devon and those she cares about, suffer from her decisions. Without giving too much away, think a kind of twist on The Picture of Dorian Gray, if the deal was not made with the devil, but with a horse instead. Now imagine a woman that attracts flies and you'll get the idea.
Throw in a voodoo practicing nurse/confidant and the fact that Devon is also secretly dating the black groom that works at her parent's farm and it suddenly feels that Gael is overeager to stuff too much into the pot here. The result is that none of these complicated issues, ambition, racism, gender inequality, identity politics or even the metaphysical elements of the play get anything more than a superficial glimpse. Oh look, Devon speaks horse. Oh look, she's treated badly by the male jockeys. Oh look, not everyone is pleased that she's dating a black guy. It all plays out like a perfectly passable movie of the week. The issues are there and they are real, but it's as though there's a fear that if we are asked to stop and delve any further, we might just change the channel.
But the production, oh my the production! In a true show of masterful staging, Director David Rainey manages to elevate this show beyond the limitations of the script and win the Triple Crown. Right from the opening moments where the cast of six come stomping out in full racehorse glory to form a centre stage racing pack and take off down the track, Rainey finesses equine magic on stage and from his actors. Whether depicting thoroughbreds in full race mode or playing the horses at the farm, this talented cast conjures the horse's movements and affectations in a way that would truly make the celebrated puppeteers of War Horse fame proud.
Rainey's talent with the human characters is just as impressive. With twenty five characters played by six actors, it's a challenge to keep the authenticity up when quick changes are required. Rainey confidently gives his cast room to shine while imposing economy on the action to keep things swiftly moving along. Of particular note is a scene in which Devon's parents independently give advice to their daughter on her future.
Josselin Tramore (Cheryl Tanner), a career horse women herself, thinks Devon should channel anger over the accident in order to go back out there and beat the other jockeys. Her father, Bernard Tramore (Travis Ammons) a horse betting junkie, thinks holding onto anger is unhealthy and that his daughter should step down from racing. Rainey puts both actors on stage dishing out advice to Devon from either side of her hospital bed as if the other weren't there and the result is a perfectly timed he said/she said comical moment. The rotating cast of narrators who help move the story along never feels trite and small bits of humour such as having actors serve as picture hangers for medical diplomas and heart monitors is a welcome touch.
Sicinski as Devon has the hardest challenge onstage, how to take a fairly two-dimensional character and make us care about her. Through some terrific physicality and energy that doesn't quit, she manages to inject some charisma into her character and while we're never really given enough ammunition to empathize with her plight, we certainly enjoy watching Sicinski take hold of the stage. Tanner in a variety of roles, but most notably as Devon's mother Josselin, conjures a perfect tough broad, no nonsense business woman with horse sense. Or I suppose that would be a horse woman with business sense. Either way, Tanner easily slips into the skin of a woman for whom breaking a horse is the ultimate goal.
As Devon's father Bernard, Ammons skillfully depicts a man that is both a dead beat and a teddy bear. Easy charm and harmlessness are what Ammons peddles and we happily eat it up, improbable as it may seem. As Devil Dog Six, Flash, spends much of his time onstage as a horse either being led around or carrying Devon on his back. It's a thoughtful performance with many little subtleties that seem just right. Flash is as sure to be bending his full torso down to mimic a horse eating grass as he is to whinny and shake his head for whatever reasons horses do those kind of things. The rest of the talented cast round out the characters with good results, making this one of the stronger ensembles of the season.
There is no question that I got more out of David Rainey's production than I did out of Fengar Gael's 95-minute play, which touches on important issues but is disappointingly bereft of revelation. Still sometimes great direction and a talented cast can be exciting even if the material isn't. The racetrack scenes alone are worth the price of admission and the smartly swift pace of the play entertains where the script cannot. I suggest you put your money down and bet on having a good, if not monumental, time at the theater.
Devil Dog Six continues through October 20 at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at landingtheatre.org or at the door. $10 - $20.