By Daniel Skora
Every once in a while a play comes by that’s so enjoyable and just so perfect that it feels like there’s nothing that can be done to it to make it any better. Many different talents go into the making of a live theatrical performance, and even the best of plays often have room for improvement. “Devil Dog Six”, currently being presented on the stage of the Detroit Repertory Theatre, is one of those plays where you wouldn’t want to change a thing. It’s a show that’s running on all cylinders, or should we say, on all four hoofs.
Playwright Fengar Gael’s intelligent and provocative script tells a story that could have been ripped from either the pages of a newspaper’s sports section or those of a fantasy novel. Devon Tramore, an up-and coming woman jockey (Jaclynn Cherry), falls from her horse during a race and suffers severe injuries. While in the hospital, she begins having out-of-body experiences and discovers she can now communicate with horses. But there’s been tension in the clubhouse over a female jockey in an otherwise male dominated profession, and an investigation has begun as to whether the accident may have been caused by something other than the misstep of a horse.
As Devon’s body goes through the healing process and her mind revels in her new-found abilities, things are abuzz both at home and in the clubhouse. Her parents, Bernard (Wayne David Parker) and Josellin (PJ Jenkinson) are worried that her equine inclinations have completely taken over her life. Her boyfriend Fonner (Jeffry Chastang), the stables groomer, misses her affections and Inspector Vernona LaRoche (Madelyn Porter) is nosing around asking questions. And as if getting well wasn’t initiative enough for Devon, the wealthy Omar Nad Al Sheba (Matt Hallerbah) is looking for a rider to bring his magnificent horse Devil Dog Six into the winner’s circle at the upcoming Dixie Derby. If you’re guessing that the Dixie Derby takes place in the South and that southern accents might have been handed out to all the actors, you are so right.
Gael’s script is a marvel of plot and characterization. There are none of those dull, boring scenes that seem to bog down even the best of plays. And while the plot forges briskly ahead, there’s ample time for characterization. The script is written for six actors to play all of the show’s twenty characters. Six of those “characters” are horses, and every actor gets to be one. There’s even a race, though betting among the audience is not allowed. Using “horse heads” made out stiffened wicker (see photo), and movements gleaned from time spent watching horses at a farm, the actors do an amazing job of becoming horses. If you enjoyed “Equus” or “Warhorse”, you’ll love “Devil Dog Six”.
There’s lots of experience in this wonderfully talented cast. In keeping with the Rep’s policy of casting the best actors in a role regardless of race or gender, two of the male jockeys are played by women. Confusing? Not in the least. After the initial awareness of how the show is being presented, one settles comfortably down to savor the play and the performances. Jaclynn Cherry, who plays the totally liberated female jockey, is the spark that drives the play and the glue that holds it together. Hers is an incredible performance, filled with energy and enthusiasm.
The show is nicely textured in other ways: You’ll learn a few things about horse racing that you probably didn’t know, be reminded that horses, especially those of the high-strung racing kind, have some of the most interesting and charming mannerisms of any animal, see sexism in action in the world of sports, enjoy a little fun poked at a rich Arab entrepreneur (and see it returned in kind), and, when all else fails, watch as the voodoo dolls are taken out.
Director Leah Smith should be proud of her achievement. Besides casting well, she’s done a remarkable job combining the play’s pathos, comedy, action, and fantasy into a unified whole. It’s theatre as it should be: imaginative, thought-provoking, and delightfully entertaining.
The set, designed by Harry Wetzel, is both visually interesting and utilitarian. It consists of the jockeys’ locker room, framework for the horses’ starting gates and a multi-use horseshoe-shaped platform at center stage. Costume design is by Mary Copenhagen, lighting by Thomas Schraeder, and sound (you might want to bring a swatter, because it sounds like the horses’ worst enemies are everywhere) is by Burr Huntington.
“Devil Dog Six” runs through May 15th so there’s only this weekend left to see the show before the horses are let out to pasture. Tickets are available for purchase with MasterCard or Visa by calling 313.868.1347. Besides single seat tickets, Detroit Repertory Theatre has several subscription packages that can be purchased at any time and are good for a year from date of purchase. Visit their site at www.DetroitRepTheatre.com for more information or email them at DetRepTh@aol.com. The Detroit Rep Theatre is located at 13103 Woodrow Wilson in, you guessed it, Detroit.