“Dog Act” Has Bite

Presented by Theatre on Fire
By Liz Duffy Adams
Directed by Diego Arciniegas

April 1 – 23, 2016
Charlestown Working Theater
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Charlestown, MA) Stories about the end of the world are often concerned with the survival of the individual against structures that have filled the void since the fabled downfall of society. This includes reality television death match enthusiasts (Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games), patriarchal cults with private harems (Mad Max: Fury Road), fight dome fans lead by Tina Turner (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), and foul-mouthed, fur-wearing, belligerent tribes of wanderers. Dog Act looks not just at the individual, but the survival of art in a new North American wasteland.

Rozetta Stone (Liz Adams) is the top-hat toting, nonsense-singing leader of a vaudevillian group of two–herself and Dog (Stewart Evan Smith). The former uses a mixture of corrupted slang and new lingo as she brags about a standing appointment with the King of China. The latter denies his humanity in favor of head scratches and a hat with canine ears. In doing so, his character is the most humane of the play. Smith’s vulnerability is the beating heart of the show, meeting each challenge with hesitance and an eye toward practical survival.

Vera Similitude (Kaylyn Bancroft) is a guarded, black-clad woman who finds the double act. Everything about Bancroft’s introduction screams femme fatale and a woman up to no good. She offers to become a part of their crew as a fellow vaudevillian, perfectly mysterious and suspicious. She’s accompanied by Jo-Jo the Bald Faced Liar (the excellent Marge Dunn), a feral girl who tells folktales fused with Shakespeare.

Articles of the culture left behind permeate the show. Particularly bittersweet is a rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” with a set of lyrics that describe junkies rather than Heavenly carriage. It encapsulates both the darkness of the show and its pleasant absurdity. It’s a difficult tone to get right and, for the most part, Theatre on Fire is able to nail it down.

This use of articles from a fallen society is reflected in director Diego Arciniegas and costume designer Erica Desautels’ choices. They have made a patchwork of survivalist and apocalypse elements that doesn’t pinpoint exactly how far in the future we are. The antagonistic, aforementioned, foul-mouth scavengers, Bud and Coke (played by the delightfully “fuck yeah” enthusiastic Tim Hoover and Avery Bargar, respectively), look like they stepped out of Warriors (1979) while Rozetta appears to have galloped out of the nineteenth century. For those concerned with world-building, the choices are more distracting than charming. It’s fantastic story with no solid world to ground itself. The setting of the show is unmoored somewhere in the United Stated and some time in the future.

But apocalypses, in the way of science fiction, are a mirror of the present, or at least its collective insecurities and fears. Here, we’re presented with a close-to-home reality where the seasons change in seconds and no one has much time to appreciate education or, yes, theater. The characters have their conflicts in the show, specifically when it comes to avoiding cannibalism, but they all seem to agree that storytelling is important, even if it is cobbled together and given an unconvincing new coat of paint. Dog Act has a lot of heavy-lifting to do in balancing its disparate tones, but when it comes to staying on message, it holds up a lantern, advocating for performance and art in the darkest of times.

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