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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Dog Act

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the Flux Theater Ensemble, a group whose work I had never seen before. I caught the last performance of Dog Act, and I'm glad I did. I was impressed with the integrity of both the work that I saw and the work in general that Flux endeavors to do.

Dog Act is a daring show - not your typical theater fare. Abstract, absurd, and almost densely poetic, it packs a lot of strange into a fairly straighforward two-act structure. Strange world, strange people, strange words. Strange choices, even. A man who voluntarily elects to live life as a dog? It reminded me at first of the men I once saw on Maury (I was in high school, okay? Don't judge me too harshly on questions of taste) who choose to live and behave like infants. And while Adams' Dog, in an understated and sweet performance by Chris Wight, is not nearly so horrifying in that train-wreck side-show kind of a way, they do both raise the same questions: what must be going on inside a person to make him relinquish is right as a human being to autonomy, to self-sufficience, to choice? When (and why) does free will stop being a gift and become a heavy burden?

Adams' use of language to explore these questions was, without a doubt, my personal favorite part of the play. Liz Duffy Adams has a truly impressive ear for language. Simply reading the playwright's note in the program gave me an idea of the Dylanesque lyricism I was in for. But while Adams' language is very pleasingly sonorous, what really makes it noteworthy is how she uses that language to draw distinctions between characters and explore ideas about identity and belonging. Dog, for example, sometimes slips and uses words a dog has no business knowing, words that betray his former life. And JoJo, Vera Similitude's savage little sidekick (played with ferocious charm by Becky Byers), travels with the Vaudevilleans, but her own language closely resembles the explosive, caustic speech of the scavengers; whether or not she belongs with the Vaudevilleans is an item of much contention. All the members of the traveling vaudeville act seem in search of belonging of some kind or another and all, for all the actions they choose (or choose not) to take, fall somewhat short of the mark. In some, like Vera (an able Liz Douglas), a survivalist at all costs, this only strengthens their resolve to take more decisive action. In others, like Dog, it causes them to forswear active choice altogether. Adams adeptly uses language to weave together these themes of identity, belonging, and choice.

I have to admit, I didn't fall in love with Dog Act. There was much about the play I didn't understand, and more still I simply didn't like. Dog's story of redemption, for example - how he ultimately reclaims his power of choice - I found somewhat predictable, for all its linguistic splendor. Still, Dog Act was a brave and provacative play, just the kind of work I want to see and see done. It was in stark contrast to Good People, which I saw on the same day, and found tame, routine, and painfully on the nose - but more on that later.

In the meantime, I'll finish by saying that not only is this the kind of theater that should be done, but it was done well. Kelly O'Donnell managed Adams' dense prose with a deft hand and the production values, though minimalist, were splendid. The cart with which our fair hero Zetta travels, the majority of the set, was truly marvelous. After this performance, I'm looking forward to what's next from Flux Theatre Ensemble. With Dog Act, they mounted a work that was both bold and well-crafted, and did so with considerable elegance. I must admit, I'm also a little taken with the way Flux structures their seasons - all explorations of a central theme or question. All this points to a smart and skillful group of artists. I'm looking forward to what's next.

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