Review: Geography of a Horse Dreamer (Red One Theatre Collective/The Playwright Project)

Geography of a Horse Dreamer blends the dark with the charismatic, part of Toronto’s Playwright Festival

Geography of a Horse Dreamer (playing as part of the Playwright Project) ends with a jam session: an old-fashioned, stomp-your-feet hootenanny, accompanied by dustbowl-folk band Local 164 on guitar and ukulele. Instead of bows, the cast urge the audience to clap along and join in on the chorus. A few good friends playing a little good music, and you’re invited to take part.

And, to some extent, this whole production feels like an extension of that jam session. A half-dozen actors who clearly relish working together just for the joy of doing so; an over-the-top, absurdist script which begs not to be taken too seriously; complete artistic freedom. When these sorts of elements collide, the result is always energetic, charismatic, compelling and worthwhile, and this production is no exception.

So here’s the problem.

Sam Shepard’s play is meant to be dark. Not just dark, pitch-black. You’re meant to look into this script and feel the light being sucked clean out of you: to experience all the anguish and distress of the blindfolded man who has spent the last year and a half handcuffed to a motel bed, to smell the cigarette smoke and the cheap liquor and the suits which haven’t been laundered in weeks, and–especially–to feel real danger behind the name “Fingers”.

The entire play turns on that blackness. And director Amos Crawley seems to get it. This company consistently deliver on all the lingering dread and menace this play is meant to contain. That’s no small feat.

But then they leaven it.

Then they wink, or nudge, or–most visibly–break into a dance number, the better to remind us that none of this is real.

And, from where I was sitting, that was a problem. I thought that Shepard’s message about the difficulty and loneliness of the artistic process was  undercut by the kooky hijinx, while the cleverness of his final deus ex machina is wasted: the penultimate scene needs to be the most contrived and ludicrous part of the show in order to succeed. It isn’t, so it doesn’t.

This is all especially disappointing because there’s a stellar cast behind this show. Benjamin Blais turns in a Santee with a fuse so short you can practically see his necktie smolder; Julian Richings does masterful work with Fingers, a perfect English gangster right down to the pencil moustache; and Steven McCarthy, as Cody, has eyes which–by themselves–could tell the entire story.

These people are tremendous fun to watch, and clearly enjoy playing with and off each other. And, as far as I can tell, that’s what happened: the collaboration was so fruitful and fun that these sentiments began to leak back into the show.

The show that cries out for darkness and dispair, and which cannot bear any pinpricks of joy or sly nods at the audience.

I may just be taking this too seriously, and–for all my reviewerly grumping–this does remain a tremendously fun show. The acting is excellent, the staging is novel and interesting, and the script is as valuable as ever. (Most playwrights don’t age well; Shepard solves this problem by categorically refusing to age.) It’s a fantastic way to spend your evening, even if it’s not everything it could have been.

But man, what this show could have been…