Venus Theatre owner Deb Randall has done it again with another insightful and entertaining production, "Devil Dog Six," that she not only directs and produces but stars in as well. Randall and five other actors play numerous roles in the show, from trainers and jockeys to horses that neigh, stomp and race around a circular platform in high-stakes races played out on stage.
The play, which runs through Oct. 28 at the C Street theater, takes the audience on a dramatic journey, where the supernatural, a bit of mystery and themes of racism, sexism and gambling addiction come to life in often-times explosive ways.
"Devil Dog Six" was written by Fengar Gael, whose works have been produced in New York, Philadelphia and other cities. Set in Louisiana, it centers on Devon, an extremely ambitious female teenage jockey who is determined to reach stardom in a sport dominated by men, who do not always welcome her, in spite of her obvious talent.
"Boys are like a wolf pack and I'm a chicken," said Devon, played by Kelsey Painter, no stranger to the Venus stage and other local theater companies, such as Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington.
The petite Painter, who has the build of a jockey, portrays Devon as feisty, strong-willed and also very high-strung. Her performance is believable as she struts around in authentic jockey gear, confidently railing in a Southern drawl against her male detractors.
In a battle of the sexes, Devon fights with words and her fists in one scene in defending her right to compete as a jockey. Randall, dressed in a white hat, plaid shirt and jeans, handles her role well as Devon's concerned mother, who's also an ambitious, respected Louisiana trainer. Her character says at one point that men in the industry "…can't stand to see her (Devon) included, can't abide seeing a girl challenging their God-given right to make money."
That resentment she refers to is obvious when the play opens and Devon has been involved in a serious racing accident that's left her unconscious with a serious head injury and other wounds. Foul play is suspected and the accident is being investigated. Painter's character vows to exact her "own brand of justice" and is more concerned about defeating her enemies with racing wins than taking up the feminist mantle or pushing for her accident to be sorted out in the courts.
"Close the case and leave me alone," she tells the investigator, even after he lets her know she's a role model for his daughters.
In addition to being disliked by some jockeys because of her sex, Devon is also looked down upon by some who have discovered that she's dating African-American jockey Fonner, played by Matthew Marcus. But while Fonner's race is not an issue for Devon, her own prejudice makes an appearance when she fears the Arab owner of Devil Dog Six, described as any jockey's dream horse, won't allow her to ride him in an upcoming major race.
"Arabs are famous for treating women like slaves," Devon said.
Randall said that as part of preparing for the production, all of the character actors spent several Saturdays at Laurel Park race track, observing all aspects of the operation. It was time well spent because the actors appear to have picked up many of the characteristics of people who work at race tracks and of the horses as well. On the circular platform, they seamlessly go from human roles to horses lining up for a race —pawing the ground with their feet, sticking their necks out, shaking their heads and neighing when appropriate.
The circular platform works well in the small space during racing scenes, as the characters, pretending to be horses, gallop around it and jockey for the lead, while an announcer calls the race on a loud speaker. Those scenes had the feel of a real race. And just as the characters don't go over the top with their Southern drawls, most don't over-emphasize their interpretations of a horse's mannerisms. However, Marcus does act a bit too hyper in his role as Devil Dog Six, by constantly moving his head from side to side, pawing the platform with his feet and greedily devouring an apple as if the horse is starving. A horse of that caliber and training would probably be calmer and less skittish.
In addition to action in the play focusing on the horse industry and barriers some women face who want to be jockeys, there's also some mysticism weaved in the plot. Devon's out-of-body experiences while unconscious are lively to say the least, and there are also scenes where Randall, wearing corn-row braids, plays a voo-doo priestess.
Although these various ingredients may sound a bit disjointed, they're not. The many twists and turns in the fast-paced, drama-filled "Devil Dog Six" flow well together and its professional cast gives an attention-holding performance. The show makes for a great night at the theater for a play that tackles issues in an industry that still lives on in Laurel.
Venus Theatre is at 21 C St. Shows are Thursdays through Sundays, and continue through Oct. 28. For tickets, go to the online box office, or call 202-236-4078.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun