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Theater review: 'Geography of a Horse Dreamer' at Moth Theatre

February 4, 2010 |  7:00 pm

400.1 "Luck is no accident, it's a phenomenon -- the challenge is to track it down."

From this existential assault on causality, Sam Shepard spun a menacing tale of abduction, exploitation and black humor with his 1974 play, "Geography of a Horse Dreamer." An embryonic but already stylistically sophisticated offering from the period before the playwright hit his career stride with such hits as "Buried Child" and "True West," the piece shows staying power in an edgy if at times overreaching revival from Moth Theatre -- itself a still-fledgling enterprise.

Elements from the unconscious  float disturbingly close to surface reality in this story steeped in Shepard's elliptical dialogue and recurring archetypes -- visionary artists, sinister corporate criminals and, of course, his iconic cowboy. The mythic purity of the Old West manifests itself in the  prescient dreams of Cody (Kris Lemche), a Wyoming native whose gift for predicting horse-race winners has made him the target of kidnappers bent on using him to win millions. Alas, captivity has compromised both his innocence and prophetic accuracy. The first act, set in a seedy flophouse, finds his captors, a pair of bickering lower-tier thugs (John Markland, Scoot McNairy), grappling with how to get the handcuffed, blindfolded  Cody -- and themselves -- back into the good graces of their boss.

Switching Cody to dog racing gets them out of the doghouse and into the second act's much swankier hotel room. But success comes at the price of Cody's unraveling into various personalities sensed from his environs, prompting a visit from ironically sensitive criminal overlord Fingers (Dov Tiefenbach) and his creepy lieutenant, the Doctor (Thurn Hoffman).

Shepard's surreal fable is a good fit for the Moth Theatre's focus on Jungian psychology and dream channeling. Aside from Hoffman's menacing Doctor, however, the young ensemble lacks the seasoning needed for finely tuned tension building. But director Jamie Wollrab's staging gets stronger  as events become increasingly weirder, and his feel for the darkly comic is spot-on -- especially when Shepard debunks his heroic Western mythology even as he obsesses over it.

 – Philip Brandes

"Geography of a Horse Dreamer," Moth Theatre, 4359 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends March 6. $15. (323) 666-2296 or www.brownpapertickets.com. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photo: Thurn Hoffman. Credit: Ellen Sandifer Photography.

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