Review: This "Dog Act" is Best in Show

 Dog Act

Written by Liz Duffy Adams

Directed by Erin Cronican

Presented by The Seeing Place Theater

Live via Zoom Saturday, January 30th and Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021 (7pm EST)

Streaming via YouTube Tuesday to Saturday after each live performance, February 2-12, 2021

The ensemble. Image courtesy Kampfire PR

The Seeing Place Theater (TSP) continues its 10th season, themed around "The Body Politic," with Liz Duffy Adams's Dog Act. This linguistically virtuosic post-apocalyptic mix of humor and pathos debuted in 2004, but its radically destabilized climate and murderously tribalized world maps flawlessly onto our current anxieties. TSP is presenting Dog Act as a benefit for the Food Pantry at St Clement's NYC and is also hosting a free talkback, "Action Steps for Surviving Hardship in an Uncertain World," via Zoom on Thursday, February 4 at 7pm with both the playwright and licensed therapist Tracy Sidesinger (register for the talkback using this link).

Dog Act takes place in a ruined future America a number of generations removed from the present day. Civilization has fallen, wildlife is depleted, the seasons can change randomly at a moment's notice, and people have organized themselves into small, competing tribes and nations. Zetta (Erin Cronican) and Dog (William Ketter) are Vaudevillians, wandering players who enjoy protected status. Pulling their cart with them, they are walking to China to perform, a place that Zetta tells Dog (a voluntarily devolved human) is home to a building containing all of the knowledge ever, which can be entered only by answering the question of two last-of-their-kind guardian beasts. Their journey is interrupted by an encounter with supposed fellow Vaudevillians Vera (Brandon Walker), who was raised in a settlement, and Jojo (Hailey Vest), Vera's companion, whose skills lie in storytelling and in violence. Although Vera—full name Vera Similitude—says that she can only tell the truth, that doesn't necessarily mean the whole truth, and, meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of this ad hoc group, the party is being stalked by Bud (Robin Friend) and Coke (Jon L. Peacock), two members of The Scavengers, who subsist by (obviously) scavenging, armed robbery, and repurposing materials.
Brandon Walker and William Ketter. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
The different groups each have a characteristic way of speaking, from Vera's measured diction and erudite vocabulary or Zetta's vibrant mélange of nonstandard English and malapropisms, to Bud and Coke's profanity-laced Shakespearean speech (imagine something like the opening insult exchanges of Romeo and Juliet as written by Quentin Tarantino). One thing that the play with language highlights is how language is a living thing and mutates over time: Zetta uses the phrase "muy jiggy" in approbation, for example, and, for her (though not Vera, who has come from a different linguistic community), "an owl" has become "a nowl"—we could find plenty of similar examples in our own current speech. Similar changes take place at the narrative level. Jojo tells a story about a fox who wants a rich wife and marries a witch that blends with Petruchio's gaslighting of Kate in Taming of the Shrew (but with a better ending). Everyone seems to know "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" with a different title and very different lyrics; and the Vaudevillians have in their repertoire The Mortality Play, which recalls the medieval morality play cycles, but here is a mash-up that includes the Bible, Abbot and Costello, and The Three Stooges. Even social organization is affected: in a great touch, the Scavengers' ruler holds the title of The Wendy. Bud and Coke's initial reaction to The Mortality Play (that it sucks) thus works as a joke both about the on-stage audiences that popped up in Shakespearean-era plays and about Dog Act's own referential web (Dog asking about the metaphorical meanings of one of Jojo's stories functions similarly, puncturing the seriousness not only of audiences and critics but also of the play itself). All of this dovetails with the play's image of vaudevillians not merely as entertainers but as repositories.
Erin Cronican, Brandon Walker, William Ketter, Hailey Vest. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
In addition to examining how history and culture are lost, preserved, and altered, Dog Act also asks what you do when you find out someone's secret(s) and what sort of wrongs can be expiated and how. Zetta's attitude, in contrast to at least one other character, that we have to let go of the past, is certainly attractive, but not without complications: do we forgive and forget mass murder, for example, just beause it took place awhile ago? The play's worldbuilding is full of deadpan, often satiric weirdness (something like if Welcome to Nightvale met The Passion of New Eve met Waiting for Godot), and the stylized background, suggesting burnt trees and brown earth, against which the action plays out looks great. The production is very funny—Friend and Peacock are consistently hilarious, and small moments such as Ketter's Dog singing louder when Cronican's Zetta tells him to be quiet or Vest's Jojo impersonating the divine plagues in The Mortality Play stand out as well—but the talented cast pivots effortlessly to pathos when called for, such as in an affecting scene between Ketter and Walker in which what is truly at stake becomes dramatically clear. There are also, in true vaudeville fashion, songs, some a capella and some accompanied by acoustic guitar (doubtless not the easiest feat via Zoom), and a short Q&A following the live performances (at the show we attended, the cast addressed questions about sound design using Zoom, the rehearsal process, the choice of show, the background art, the play's language, individual challenges, and more).

Dog Act not only benefits an excellent cause but is much more heady, uproarious fun than we assume that the real post-apocalypse will be: good reasons to get in on this act now. 

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

Comments

  1. Very thorough, I enjoyed the production as well and your review enriched my understanding of it.

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