And it’s off to the races! The horses are out of the gate, thundering around the bend and pulling ahead to take the lead is Devil Dog Six, the third selection in the Venus Theatre’s “Bold Hope” 2012 Season. A challenging and inspiring tale of a young female jockey trying to find her place in the male-dominated sport, this production takes you on a unique human experience; feeling the struggles of overcoming gender-imposed adversity, bonding with an animal that has no such gender restrictions, and ultimately challenging the prospect of hope with a triumphant ending.
Playwright Fengar Gael takes the audience into the esoteric world of horse racing; all of the aspects from the jockey’s room to the groomer’s stable and the trainers ring out on the farm. Gael’s characters are structured in layers; purposeful double casting assignments to give the play depth and meaning. Casting the same actor to play both the protagonist’s prize winning horse and her wildly untamed groom-boy love interest, among other profound double-castings, is just one example of the complexity of her play.
Director Deborah Randall conquers the challenge of performing a show that incorporates non-sentient animals as characters. Choosing the more imaginative approach of minimalism in regards to the horses, Randall forces the actors to focus on their physicality and posture repurposing in order to convincingly create six horses on the stage. Engaging in the horse race, Randall – who is an active character in the show as well – creates a racetrack atmosphere through sound and sensation; the actors thundering their feet like hooves to gallop around the stage, shaking the seats in the audience as the rumble of the race sweeps through them. Their proud postures radiate an equine energy that is completed with well timed twitches, whinnies and knickering sound effects that make these performers the perfect colts and fillies on the stage.
Each of the performers takes on many roles throughout the production, every person having their horse self, their jockey personality and various other characters important to the play. Actor#2 (Jason Glass) presents the most diverse of character profiles, crafting over four unique accents and personalities for his various characters portrayed. Glass has two modes of deep Louisiana drawl for his neurologist character and his hornet-esque jockey; one slow and steady with the cool sound of intellect dripping into his accent and the other a much more ornery and angry sound. Adapting a haughty French accent for another jockey character and a reformed and astute middle-eastern sound for his role as the Saudi horse owner, Glass corners the market in unique character development and becomes the jack of all trades in regards to various vocal speech patterns.
Having just two human roles Actor#4 (Andi Dema) slides easily into his investigator’s personality; often becoming the narrator that addresses the audience at key moments throughout the production. Dema takes his moments of narration, as guided by the text, and uses these opportunities to connect with the audience in regards of what is progressing throughout the show. He makes eye-contact, delivers subtle hints of emotions and foreshadowing through use of his facial expressions and is a solid addition to the cast.
Actor#1 (Matthew Marcus) gets the distinct privilege of taking on the role of the title horse. Marcus’s performance as a horse is second only to Kelsey Painter’s portrayal when she becomes semi-possessed by the spirit of the equine. His perfectly held posture, slightly bent forward at the hips with an upright torso creates the illusory image of a horse’s strong backside where one would lay a saddle, and he holds his head up tall and proud, bending it forward from the shoulders to create the elongated neck of the equine. His snorts and whinnies are well timed with the twitching of his head as if he was actually swatting flies away from his ears. Marcus becomes so involved with his colt’s portrayal that you almost forget he’s just a man and not an actual horse.
Pairing up as the protagonist’s parents are Alex Zavistovich as Devon’s father and Deborah Randall as her mother. Together the pair have a syrupy drawl to their Louisiana accent and encourage their daughter in their own unique way. Randall is the more driven of the two in regards to keeping their daughter racing; with a wildly stereotypical feminist approach to the character she really breaks out with a violent temper in a scene where her and Devon go at it. Doubling up as a thoroughbred filly, Randall creates the most convincing horse during the running race – which occurs during every scene change, with her nostrils flaring, foam frothing at the corners of her lips, her eyes focused sharp and tight on the invisible finish line that lies ahead.
But the triple crown winner is Devon Tramore (Kelsey Painter) who tackles the difficult concept of being a human that is becoming a horse. She can’t fall straight into the role of a horse like her fellow performers but rather gradually eases in, molding her human behaviors, physical presentations, gestures and speech patterns so that they are horse-like. She is a ferocious performer designed for this challenging role, bringing eruptions of emotions to the table while always keeping her character grounded in the personal struggle of existing in a male-dominant world.
Painter is the epitome of every girl who has ever had to overcome adversity in the face of a masculine society and does so with vim and vigor and a whole lot of snorts, stomps and whinnies. Her character evolves like a horse hot out of the gate; rearing to go then takes off at a trot, breaks into a gallop and bursts into a sprint the rest of the way down the line.
You can make a surefire bet that Devil Dog Six will be one of the most compelling and unique stories you see this fall. Be sure to get your tickets before the races close.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.
Devil Dog Six plays through October 28, 2012 at the Venus Theatre Play Shack – 21 C Street in historical downtown Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 236-4078, or purchase them online.