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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Horse Dreamer’ Reawakened at Al’s Bar

We always think of Sam Shepard as a Western playwright working out his inventive twistings of Western myths, as if he need only stare out the window of his study and imagine his characters in the surrounding landscape.

We forget, though, that Shepard has spent a great deal of time on the road, and it was during a stay in London that he came up with “Geography of a Horse Dreamer.” And even though the play was written after his mid and late-'60s adventures in New York that combined theater, late-night bar life and rock ‘n’ roll, funky Al’s Bar (in downtown’s industrial/loft district) is the ideal setting for James Terry’s new staging of Shepard’s mocking, cockeyed play.

Terry plays Cody, a Wyoming cowboy with the gift for dreaming the outcome of horse races before they happen. He’s money in the bank for the underworld types who have abducted him--or was, before they expected him to churn out the dreams assembly line fashion.

Like “Angel City,” which Shepard wrote soon after “Horse Dreamer” and which a few in this company staged in 1983, this play rides on a metaphor. Cody is the (Hollywood?) artist, once flying on waves of inspiration, now grounded by an industry that wants the work as made-to-order as a burger.

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What really throws Cody into a tailspin (Terry’s Cody is a wonderfully wigged-out visionary) is the new order from his boss, Fingers (Ron Campbell): Start dreaming about the dog races. Fingers’ hoods (Ray Mickshaw and Steven M. Porter) know that the boss is unwittingly setting up a disaster.

This is a funnier, more vital play than “Angel City,” developing a darker and surprising view of the artist’s triumph over evil. And if this show feels infected with the kind of performance energy we’ve come to expect from the Actors’ Gang, that is no accident: Terry and Campbell are Gang veterans, and Kyle Secor’s horrific/comic delivery and presence as a particularly nasty doctor is right in the Gang’s lunatic style (he replaced Daniel McDonald last week).

No one burns up this Shepard madhouse with greater incendiary glee than Campbell, whose Fingers is one part Bela Lugosi, one part Howard Hughes. Fingers has his own dreams, and when Campbell wanders off into the middle of the audience, holding up a cassette tape of Cody’s favorite music to a piercing beam of light, it’s an unforgettable theater image.

Darryl Tewes’ electric bass accompaniment is too loud by half, and the film segments wander in and out of focus, but hearing and seeing this show in one of the last Bohemian, graffiti-decorated enclaves in Los Angeles makes for one of the better trips into the underground in some time.

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At 305 S. Hewitt St. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 28. Tickets: $5; (213) 829-3547.


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