Wild Life Theatre Company

at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre

In D.H. Lawrence’s 1933 short story “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” a boy discovers that he can forecast the winning racehorse by working himself into an ecstatic trance astride his toy steed. Cody, the clairvoyant in Sam Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer, has the same profitable perspicacity, though he requires nothing more than a comfortable sleep and the music on a mysterious record.

Cody’s talents have come to the attention of a high-rolling gambler named Fingers, who has Cody watched day and night by a pair of his flunkies, Santee and Beaujo (pronounced “Boo-joe”), and kept blindfolded or locked into windowless hotel rooms and chained to his bed. After months, maybe years of this treatment, Cody is growing a little stir-crazy. Worse, his second sight is beginning to fail–a matter of concern to Santee and Beaujo, who fear that Cody’s obsolescence will mean their own. When the word comes down from Fingers to forget horses and dream of dog races instead, Cody adapts to the change but at a great price.

Though Shepard’s plays themselves frequently seem to require an oracle to interpret them, Cody’s symptoms are not unlike those associated with a common workplace affliction, burnout. Cody’s frustration is so intense it drives him out of his own personality and into that of an Irish dog trainer and finally into that of the dog itself. It’s the kind of frustration prevalent among those who create through inspiration–like writers. “You don’t understand the area I have to dream in,” Cody says, then tries to explain: “The space inside, where the dream comes, has got to be created. That’s what Fingers don’t understand. He’s blocked up my senses, and everything forces itself on the space I need.” The compassionate Beaujo has an idea of Cody’s dilemma: “Maybe his dreaming might be kind of an art form. Maybe he needs special stuff to get him back in top form, like a decent bed or something.” Santee, who freely admits to never dreaming at any time, snaps back: “It’s not within the budget!”

Is Geography of a Horse Dreamer a tale of writer’s block? Or of the plight of the worker under unfeeling post-industrial capitalism? Is it, as Wild Life director Ian Barford would have us believe, another of Shepard’s jeremiads about the waning of the American west and the mistreatment of its natives? Or is it an exploration of the interdependencies that grow up between political or social prisoners and their captors? Whatever the answer, there is no denying the wretched despair of the wasted Cody, the hypocrisy of the effete Fingers (who throws up his hands in dismay at the sight of what he himself has made of Cody), and the horrifying inhumanity of Fingers’s assistant, called only “the Doctor.” His suggestion for preserving Cody’s gift is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

Half the battle in putting on a Shepard play is finding a continuous thread through the nearly always enigmatic text. Barford has done this in the theme of the destruction of the west, and he keeps the pacing restrained and the tension gut-tight in his delineation of that theme. He is amply assisted by needle-sharp performances from the cast. Richard P. Logan makes the visionary Cody a paraffin-faced gargoyle out of an Edvard Munch painting–a characterization so far removed from Logan’s swaggering trucker in the recent Anaman Theatre’s The Woolgatherer that I almost couldn’t believe it was the same actor. Dean J. Leitzen stops well short of caricature in his portrayal of the epicene Fingers, making him flamboyant but not fluttery. Tim Kough, whose face is as featureless as if he were wearing a stocking mask, and Reid Ostrowski, with a rubbery face as expressive as Kough’s is immobile, display fine tag-team work as Santee and Beaujo. Most memorable, however, is John Spears as the laconic Doctor, a figure so threateningly static that even the simple act of raising his eyes radiates menace.

Leitzen on sets, Kari Beth Rust on costumes, and Sharon Porter on lights have worked some minor miracles with the cramped little studio space behind the Heartland Cafe kitchen. Also impressive are Dawn Smallman’s surreal film sequences of horse and dog races, interspersed with close-ups of the animals looking at us knowingly.

Although Geography of a Horse Dreamer ends in a manner that I suppose could be called upbeat in its own cryptic way, it is not a pleasant play, dealing as it does with brutal torture and pitiable suffering. I was also somewhat disappointed by the play’s facile message, whether Shepard’s or Barford’s: the Rape of the Red Man and the Erosion of the Environment. Not that these concerns aren’t important, but the complex dynamics between the characters are wasted on this simple propagandizing mission. The production work by the Wild Life Theatre Company is undeniably superlative, however, and signals the entrance of a promising new group on the Chicago theater scene.