By JOANNE ENGELHARDT
There’s a lyrical, almost spellbinding cadence to the dialogue in Sam Shepard’s early (1974) play, “Geography of a Horse Dreamer.” There’s also a lot that is downright bewildering.
As staged by Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre Company, Shepard’s dysfunctional, disturbingdramedy has flashes of quixotic humor intermixed with a lot of unpleasantness said and done by unpleasant people. Director Nigel Sanders-Self seems to enjoy pushing his “Horse Dreamer” actors to be even more improbable and idiosyncratic than Shepard – and that’s saying a lot.
First off, the storyline is pretty much way out in left field. Ever heard of a “horse dreamer?” Most likely not, but that’s exactly what Cody (a phenomenal, incredibly earnest Aaron Walker) is: He dreams about horse races and can sometimes pick the winners. For that he gets kidnapped by gangsters who blindfold him, take him to hotels in different cities, chain him to a bed and even give him pills to help him dream. But after a string of good luck, Cody seems to lose his special power, so his keepers Santee (a gruff, unrealistic Chad Davies) and Beaujo (Erik Gandolfi who consistently captures precisely the right tone and manner) become concerned that their bosses are going to blame them – or worse.
Luckily, Cody begins getting his mojo back – although this time he’s predicting the winners of dog, rather than horse, races. Suddenly the gangsters are winning again, and in Act 2 the hotel room in which Cody is still held hostage is decidedly more upscale.
Enter the gangster boss, Fingers (Jerry Lloyd in a tour-de-force performance if there ever was one). Fingers doesn’t just walk in, he glides in. He doesn’t just ooze creepiness and evil; he IS evil. His fingers – every single one of them bedecked with a garish ring – move constantly, as if playing a piano concerto in the air. It’s a clever bit to dress him in all black with vivid red accents – the better to look like the Devil incarnate.
Lloyd is nothing short of magnificent as he dramatically slithers around the stage, one eyebrow arched, fingers twitching and arms outstretched Barrymore-like. He is matched in bravura quirkiness by Walker who comes up with an Irish brogue in Act 2 and has the astonishing ability to make his entire body jerk convulsively at will.
Regrettably, other than Gandolfi, the rest of the cast doesn’t really measure up to Lloyd and Walker. While Jackson Wolffe as the doctor shows some signs of life when he begins getting worked up about operating on Cody, the rest of the time he is a zero. Marcus Cato does as much as he can with the minuscule part of the waiter, while Cody’s two brothers, Jasper and Jason (Kirk Gandolfi and Marty Lee Jones), are walk-on roles.
Part of the problem is simply that Shepard seems to like nothing more than to infuse his plays with many layers of meaning, frequently substituting something tangible for what at least in his mind is a parable. Sometimes the layers are more readily recognized than in “Horse Dreamer” which is one of his lesser-known plays. In fact, it was first produced in a London theater in 1974, yet never made the transition to Broadway.
“Horse Dreamer” has its share of Shepard favorites: the American west (Wyoming, in this play), cowboys, existential dialogue and a play-ending horse skull. This one has neck bones thrown in for good measure, and not in a good way because supposedly there’s a “dreamer bone” in Cody’s neck that can be cut out and inserted into someone else. About this point a barely audible collective shudder erupts from the audience.
Peripatetic set designer Ron Gasparinetti must have had a field day creating a set that could be switched from a sleazy hotel room with newspaper taped over the windows and plaster peeling off the walls in Act 1 to a more refined, attractively furnished hotel room for Act 2, all during intermission. Mission accomplished. Costumer Brooke Jennings does a fine job of giving the cast just the right look and feel (and Lloyd’s flamboyant attire as Fingers is flawless).
Credit goes to both director Sanders-Self and actor Erik Gandolfi (Beaujo) who designed the sound and multimedia presentations, both of which play a key role in this short (less than two hours) production.
Sanders-Self says in his director’s notes that “Horse Dreamer” is enigmatic, another meaning of which is unfathomable. Some theatergoers may feel that way as well. What is needed, perhaps, is a better understanding of the “geography” of Sam Shepard’s mind.
“Geography of a Horse Dreamer” continues through March 17 at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $24 for seniors and students for all performances; adult tickets are $29. For more information and tickets, go to www.jeweltheatre.net or (831) 425-7506.