'Freedom Is a Dream': Balancing Pinter, Shepard

Pity poor John Cassini. He's spending his weekend evenings getting verbally abused and handcuffed to a bed.

Cassini plays two very different hostages in "Freedom Is a Dream," a pair of one-acts by Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard, at Third Street Theater.

Director Dean Yacalis has linked the plays--Pinter's "One for the Road" and Shepard's "Geography of a Horse Dreamer"--as the metaphoric journey of one character played by Cassini. (To underscore the imprisonment theme, the opening performances benefited the human-rights group Amnesty International.) While the strategy doesn't completely work--the connection seems too facile--the plays nicely balance each other and are handsomely produced here.

In Pinter's piece, the mostly mute Victor (Cassini) is being held as a political prisoner in an unnamed country. His nemesis is Nicolas (Petter Barve), a thoroughly sadistic commandant who practices psychological torture through taunting jokes and thinly veiled threats. One of his favorite tricks is to comment on the beauty of Victor's wife (Gabriella Franco), also held captive.

The taut language and cold mood of the Pinter suspenser are a far cry from "Horse Dreamer," which finds the typically dour Shepard in a loopy, near-farcical mode.

Here an idiot-savant sheep farmer (Cassini) is imprisoned in cheap hotel rooms by gangsters (David Parker, Bruce Kronenberg) who believe he can predict the outcome of horse and dog races. Before collapsing into quasi-religious weirdness, the piece manages more than a few laughs.

* "Freedom Is a Dream," Third Street Theater, 8140 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Dark Dec. 29-30. Ends Jan. 27. $10. (213) 845-9551. Running time: 2 hours.

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