Missing the Muse

In epic poems, the poet traditionally begins by invoking the muse, a fickle divinity who may grant the writer the good fortune and power to accomplish his endeavor. In Sam Shepard's Geography of a Horse Dreamer, now playing in an excellent revival at the Big Little Theater, Shepard dramatizes his own anxieties about the muse deserting him. Two slow-witted gangsters, Beaujo and Santee, guard Cody in a rundown motel room. He's handcuffed to a bed in a position like Prometheus or Christ, kidnapped from rural Wyoming because he possesses the mysterious ability to predict horse races in his dreams as if he were a shaman receiving secret code from the spirit level.

Unfortunately, he's been in a slump lately. The gangsters' boss, Fingers, has hinted they're all in big trouble if Cody's luck doesn't improve soon. In fact, the boss tells his toughs, they've now been relegated to dog races.

In the next act, Cody's on a hot streak—except all the pressure seems to be making him crack. Fingers (Peter Picard), a gaudy mobster who's half clown and half godfather, swings by to check up on them with his "heavy," an eerie skeleton of a doctor. Cody's behavior becomes increasingly bizarre: he leaps and skitters around the hotel room, talking in voices, twitching, and hiding under the bed.

Fearing that his luck may be running out, the doctor tries to extract from his suitcase some bones that, he claims, contain a residue of lucky dream serum. Before he can finish the job, though, Cody's shotgun-toting cowboy brother barges through the door to rescue him, such an improbable deux ex machina proving that Cody's luck hasn't run out after all.

Shepard wrote the play while living in England during a period when he contemplated giving up playwriting for rock 'n' roll, shortly after his first taste of real success as a writer. In the play's allegory, Cody represents Shepard's compulsion to go on writing plays after a serious funk of self-doubt and writer's block. Perhaps the gangsters symbolize critics and producers who hold the artist hostage, or perhaps they are the artist's own dim-witted inner demons.

Director Ann Bowen chose to eliminate one very English detail of the original script, probably to cut the need for an extra actor. The very last thing we're to see in the script is a waiter who delivers Champagne that the gangsters ordered from room service near the top of the act. The waiter has a Joe Orton-esque punch line, entirely cut here, that hinges on absurdly maintaining the proprieties of class distinctions in the face of absolute chaos.

Fingers responds, as the lights begin to dim, by requesting the waiter to play Cody's inspirational record. In this production, however, Fingers does not address the waiter or the audience but speaks, inexplicably, to the sound board operator. While it may seem like a frivolous detail, the fact that the whole play culminates with this line makes its importance pivotal.

Nonetheless, Fingers' direct address has its own virtues—it is a strange, disconcerting choice to end a strange play (made more disconcerting because of the somewhat happy ending Shepard foists onto an otherwise darkly surrealist tragicomedy).

Overall, the acting captivates. Tim Scott literally foams at the mouth with hysteria as the smarter, more anxious of the two thugs, to great comic effect. Brian Tracy, on the other hand, captures Beaujo's sensitive side while downplaying his character's foolishness, making him more human and less like a parody of a comic book gangster.

As Cody, Tom Pavey displays an impressive range of quick-changing moods and voices as he grows ever more schizophrenic from his inner visions and paranoid about external threats. Pavey jumps and jitters with a nearly religious fear and trembling by the end. Likewise, David Elyha is downright creepy as the doctor, especially when, like a medieval shyster hawking holy relics, he holds forth on the magic bones that fill his suitcase.

The production is minimal to the point of cutting out the multimedia projection the script calls for to represent Cody's dreams—as well as cutting a couple of minor characters. However, the actors have the magnetism, in this small black-box theater, to convey the mania of a religious awakening or nightmare, as it may be. The moral of the fatalistic overtones throughout Geography seems to be that the gods are fickle, but they're not without a sense of humor.

Thankfully for us, Shepard's own muse did not desert him, and he went on to write the major plays that made him famous. Moreover, his lucky streak seems to have continued with this new production of Geography, which plays with his one-act Chicago on the same program.

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