She Talks Horse

— Equine karma? It's too bad Devon Tramore couldn't interview Street Sense, Curlin, and Rags to Riches, this year's Triple Crown winners. Devon, a female jockey in Mary Fengar Gail's Devil Dog Six, can more than horse-whisper; she talks horse, knows every nuance of mane-shake, head-bob, and whinny.

They say animals only live in the moment. But come on. You can't tell me that after Curlin made that million-dollar move in the Preakness, blitzing between horses, and ran down Street Sense to win by a nose, he didn't know what he'd done? And what was Street Sense thinking at the wire, as his laurels fell away? Same with Curlin in the Belmont. Rags to Riches -- a filly, for sweet jeepers! -- stumbled at the gate, then held him off to become only the tenth female to win a Triple Crown race!

Was Curlin dumbfounded? Or, blind gaga in love, did he defer? Was Rags's blanket of carnations in the winner's circle a token of his affection? And what about Rags? Actually Devon wouldn't have to ask her how it feels to compete in a sport dominated by males. It's Devon's story too.

She wants to be the first woman to win a Grade One stakes in Louisiana. And she could. But because of her skills, and "uppity" attitude, forces may be conspiring against her. Nine months before the Dixie Derby her horse, Señor Pepe, tangled hoofs with another. Devon fell, slammed into the rail. Now she's in a hospital, a maze of wires and tubes. Her mother (the thoroughbred racing equivalent of a "stage mother") swears she'll recover fully. Trust her "iron will." Devon's father, convinced that competitive women are "vulgar," envisions a "walking medical textbook" for the rest of her life. Her doctor -- part of the conspiracy, or just hot to try new toys? -- wants to give Devon electroconvulsive therapy, i.e., shock treatment.

Vernon Larouche investigates. Devon brought long shots home. Worse, her competitors allege, she gloats when she wins -- and guys don't? Were male jockeys out to get her? And to gain their favor, did Devon flirt or, as some allege, engage in "aerobic exactas and trifectas" -- know what I'm sayin', dude? -- with them?

As evidence confounds Vernon, Devon investigates a new gift: she can leave her body. At first she just floats around the hospital. Soon she seeks the comfort of horses, in particular, Devil Dog Six, biggest two-year-old around and such a natural closer he's destined to chauffeur her to a Derby victory.

Moxie Theater's opening night had shaky spots, but JoAnn Glover's performance as Devon was spot-on. Devon spends so much out-of-the-body time in the stables, she starts craving greens and sugar cubes. In gradual, almost imperceptible stages, Glover transforms immobile Devon: her hair lengthens into a mane she tips from side to side to shake out straw. Flies swarm, drawn by her "gamey" odor. When Glover first snorts, you sense something's up. When she rips an apple from her father's hand, almost taking his arm with it, she confirms suspicions.

Devon says she's a chicken among wolverines. But Glover gives her more than a touch of the wolf. She's so goal-oriented she doesn't see the other advantage of her gift: predicting winners. She'd rather be one. Devon becomes horselike. But as forthright, unfettered Glover shows in scene after scene, because of her "unwomanly" ambitions, the world's treated Devon that way all along.

Mary Fengar Gail's world-premiere comedy-drama takes place on several levels. It's a mystery, a comic roller-coaster, and a subtle examination of gender types and differences. The play jumps from genre to genre with the speed of a bullet workout. It's got so much craft, spirit, and scope, you wonder why San Diego hasn't seen more of the obviously talented playwright's work.

Devil Dog has a big palette, and Nick Fouch has designed an appropriate canvas. The audience sits on two sides of a racetrack. At one end a stable, at the other, jockeys' quarters, their silks hanging on hooks. Wooden rails separate spectators from the bare stage. Most of the play's a backstory, told during the slo-mo running of the Dixie Derby, which rematerializes every so often, and it's a close one.

Co-directors Jennifer Eve Thorn and Esther Emery encourage splashy theatricality. The opening-night performance had yet to meld the elements, in places, but showed signs that it would. Tim Parker contributed in multiple roles, and multiple accents, but especially as the jealous jockey named Ellis, whose brain's "a few furlongs short of a track." As Devon's parents, Terri Park and Mark C. Petrich reverse gender stereotypes: Josselin Tramore's rah-rah, tread-where-angels-fear drive; Bernard councils walking on eggshells, tiptoe.

Moxie has two contests: a fancy hat competition and a bet on the Dixie Derby. It's too bad the production didn't have a preshow paddock, where the audience could inspect the actors/horses before wagering. Laurence Brown plays Devil Dog Six with so much skill he'd be the odds-on favorite (the script is named for him after all). But as Mary Fengar Gail shows, sometimes it pays to bet the heart and not the chalk.

Devil Dog Six, by Mary Fengar Gail

Moxie Theater, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn and Esther Emery; cast: Laurence Brown, Bill Dunnam, Jo Anne Glover, Terri Park, Tim Parker, Mark C. Petrich, Don Victor; scenic design, Nick Fouch; costumes, Devin Bowman; lighting, Jennifer Setlow; sound, Rachel Le Vine

Playing through June 30; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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