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Good Bet

ae1Performances highlight JTC’s revival of ‘Horse Dreamer’

Now in its eighth season, Jewel Theatre Company continues to produce quality professional theatre right in the heart of Downtown Santa Cruz. Spearheaded by Artistic Director Julie James, and making use of an ever-expanding gene pool of directors, performers and stage technicians, the company keeps local audiences intrigued with its lineup of often challenging, unexpected material. Case in point is the new JTC production of “Geography of a Horse Dreamer,” a lesser-know drama by the iconic Sam Shepard that considers the plight of the artist in a world of commerce, the vagaries of luck, and (as usual, for Shepard) the spectacle of men behaving badly.

“Geography of a Horse Dreamer” was written in 1974, in the early middle of Shepard's long, prolific career, but still years before his most celebrated works like “Buried Child” and “True West.” It feels like a younger man's play, in that it's percolating with ideas, although its themes are not completely thought out or resolved. But it sparks with wit and energy, and offers opportunities for memorable performances and stagecraft, which this production exploits with JTC's usual panache.

The play begins in a shabby hotel room in an unnamed locale. A young man is chained to the bed, under the watchful eyes of a couple of goons, irascible Santee (Chad Davies) and the more affable, accommodating Beaujo (Erik Gandolfi). Their charge, Cody (Aaron Walker) is the horse dreamer of the title: He has a gift for dreaming the winner in upcoming horse races.

Or he had a gift. This rare talent got him abducted from a sheep ranch in Wyoming by a crime boss who's had him trucked around to various venues ever since, picking winners for the organization. But being forced to produce on demand, to say nothing of the constraints of being chained to a series of hotel beds, never allowed outside, has taken a toll of Cody's gift; he's not dreaming winners any more, and the trio's fortunes have declined exponentially. This treatment has "blocked my senses," he complains. He can't "dream any more winners until I get the spaces back." What used to be "instinct," is now "work."

ae-2Sam Shepard’s lesser-known play, ‘Geography of a Horse Dreamer,’ comes to life at Center Stage with Aaron Walker (left) starring as Cody, a young man with an incredible gift. Reduced to handicapping dog races, Cody's trance-like dream state takes over his waking life; he starts channeling an Irish dog trainer (and in one exceptional interlude, a racing dog himself), and begins picking winners again. Although they start moving into swankier accommodations, Cody has lost his identity. But things reach a breaking point with the arrival of Fingers (Jerry Lloyd), the crime boss overlord of Cody's keepers, and his fearsome henchman, The Doctor (Jackson Wolffe). "Luck is a living thing," purrs The Doctor, and these professional gamblers have a diabolical plan for extracting the last bit of residual luck from their gifted dreamer while he still has some.

This is a short play staged with cohesion and clarity by director Nigel Sanders-Self. With Ron Gasparinetti's minimal sets (two hotel rooms), Sanders-Self is wise to focus on Shepard's ideas, and the byplay between the characters to carry the day, coaxing fine performances from his excellent cast. Walker gives a very affecting Cody, switching nimbly between bewildered Midwesterner and crafty Irishman personas. JTC veteran Gandolfi is particularly strong as the hapless Beaujo, trying to play it smart and still be a nice guy. (He gets one of the biggest laughs when he tells the menacing Doctor, "I'm just the sidekick, I don't know anything important!") Gandolfi also designed the evocative dream montages that shimmer on the wall above the bed when Cody sleeps.

Lloyd is flamboyantly great as Fingers, dressed in devilish red and black by costumer Brooke Jennings. (He was the terrific Malvolio in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's “Twelfth Night” last summer.) Not your usual crime boss, Lloyd makes Fingers a faux-arty, morally impotent impresario willing to feed off the "genius" of others. But Wolffe steals the show as The Doctor, with his silky diction and malevolent aplomb. Borrowing cheerfully from every mad scientist movie ever made (think German Expressionism-meets-Sidney Greenstreet), Wolffe injects a note of surreal, sci-fi pizzazz into the show. He's the entertaining highlight in this solid, accomplished production. 


Jewel Theatre Company's production of ‘Geography of a Horse Dreamer’ plays through Sunday, March 17, at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. For tickets, call 425-7506, or visit jeweltheatre.net. Photos: Steve DiBartolomeo

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