The newest up-and-coming sports star headed for greatness with proper handling is not RGIII, but DD6. That’s Devil Dog Six, the name of a young thoroughbred horse, and he needs the understanding and care of a young female jockey. Can she overcome injuries, workplace sexism, and even voodoo magic to win the big race? That’s the mystery and adventure in Fengar Gael’s interesting new play making its East Coast premiere at Venus Theatre.
The story opens at the start of the Dixie Derby, a Louisiana race that could be the springboard to the big Triple Crown events. Six jockeys take off in a stirring start before the story flashes back in time nine months.
Devon Tramore (Kelsey Painter), a good young jockey on the way to becoming great, lies still in a hospital room with a serious brain injury following a racing pileup that caused her to be thrown and trampled. The doctors have her isolated in a dark room because any stimulus causes her extreme pain. Her horse trainer mother Josselin (Deborah Randall) fears she may never race again, which is something her father Bernard (Alex Zavistovich) would not mind.
The circumstances of the accident are suspicious, leading to an investigation conducted by Vernon LaRoche (Andi Dena). The investigation reveals sexual harassment from some of the other jockeys who are envious of Devon’s skills, her youth, and/or her beauty. Some put dead fish in her locker, peek at her in the shower, and/or hit on her with various degrees of sophistication. Devon never reports any of this behavior because as she sarcastically explains, “that would really make them like me.”
A more serious problem for Devon is sexism among racehorse owners. Despite the fact that she has a natural feeling for horses, many owners don’t trust a female jockey with quality mounts, resulting in a vicious circle that keeps her ranking below her skill level and gives other owners the excuse they need to perpetuate the sexism.
All of these circumstances anger Devon, but she is ornery and combative. She funnels her anger and her dislike of her treatment into a fierce determination to succeed. That leads to an obsession with talking shop and a little excess celebration of her victories, neither of which endear her to the other jockeys.
The story veers from the traditional sports tale when during Devon’s hospitalization she masters the art of leaving her body. She also develops a rare bond with horses, learning their language and emulating their behavior. Not surprisingly, her new habits of sleeping in the stable, eating like a horse, refusing to bathe, and snorting and whinnying like a horse cause worry among her doctor and her parents.
For a while Devon manages to excuse her behavior as just a prank to her half-African American boyfriend Fonner Brighton (Matthew Marcus). Their relationship is on the down low since he works as a groom for her mother’s training business. Her new abilities, though, give her a supernatural connection with the star horse her mother is training, Devil Dog Six. (While all actors double as horses and jockeys, it’s a nice touch that the same actor who portrays her boyfriend also portrays this horse).
While Devon helps Devil Dog Six win his early races, most attribute the success to the horse alone instead of also recognizing Devon’s skills. The horse’s Saudi Arabian owner (Jason Glass) is uncertain whether he should trust her with the mount in the prestigious Dixie Derby. Meanwhile, Devon also must worry whether romantic happiness is worth the cost of giving up her special gift. The play posits that this alleged gift may have come either from a psychiatric response to the situation or from Vodoun or “voodoo” magic.
Devil Dog Six is an absorbing play due both to its unusual take on sexual harassment and the high quality of the cast. All six actors go beyond cast doubling to tripling or quadrupling in various roles.
Much of the weight of the production falls upon Kelsey Painter as the young jockey and she gives a strong performance. She portrays Devon as stubborn and willful, generally likeable but also prone to being pushy due to the passions of an obsessed 18-year-old. She and Matthew Marcus also have a nice romantic chemistry, both in their relationships as a woman & her man and as a woman and her horse.
Some of the best characterizations come from actor/director Deborah Randall and Jason Glass. Randall understands the power needed for a woman to succeed in a male-dominated business and her Josselin Tramore is one of those outsized characters who can fill a room. She also masters the tricky role of a Devon’s Jamaican-American nurse. Glass is especially entertaining as the sleazy would-be charmer Jean-Pierre Cluny, one of the jockeys who jockey for Devon’s attention. He is also convincing as Devon’s doctor and Devil Dog Six’s Saudi Arabian owner, who is a believable mixture of traditional and modern views.
A collective appreciation goes to all of the cast members for their convincing physical portrayal of the horses. It is not an easy acting task to pull off, but it seems that their Saturday sessions at Laurel Park Race Course pay off.
Devil Dog Six
Closes October 28, 2012
21 C Street
Laurel, MD 20707
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
The script is intelligent and full of different themes that generally mesh well. Devil Dog Six also fits with the mission of Venus Theatre, “Setting flight to the voices of women,” like a well-cinched saddle. In addition, it’s clear that Fengar Gael knows her horse racing. Director Randall and the artistic team also do an excellent job making a simple black box theatre serve as a variety of settings such as race tracks, Tramore Farms, a hospital, and a Vodoun church.
At times the work does feel a little out of balance. The device of the investigation seems to take a little longer than needed to reveal the backstory, and it can’t escape the standard clichés such as “one more question” and “don’t go doing anything foolish.” It is also easy to lose count of the excessive flash forwards to the big race. Instead, one wishes for more of the interaction between Devon and the horses which are well-written and staged with finesse by director Randall.
Overall, Devil Dog Six presents an interesting inside view at the issues faced by a young woman in a well-drawn occupational microcosm. Even if you are not the type to tune in to the Triple Crown races each summer, it is easy to enjoy this new Venus Theatre production.
Devil Dog Six by Fengar Gael, Directed by Deborah Randall. Featuring Kelsey Painter, Matthew Marcus, Deborah Randall, Alex Zavistovich, Jason Glass, Andi Dema. Produced by Venus Theatre, Reviewed by Steven McKnight.