Vicious Dogs on Premises
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 30, 2008
One of my companions at Vicious Dogs on Premises, a young woman who happens to be an actor, remarked after the show that what she liked best about this physical theatre work is its playfulness. I completely agree: even though the underlying concept of this new cross-genre piece by Witness Relocation is to explore the notions of torture and Choice Overload and how they intersect, it is the fun that the four performers on stage and director-choreographer Dan Safer, offstage just to their right, clearly are having is infectious and exciting and what, I think, most audiences will take away from the show.
A note in the press kit explains very concisely "how Vicious Dogs on Premises works":
There are four signboards at the front of the stage [clearly visible to, though not readable by, the audience], A, B, C, & D.
Each board has its own, different list of dances, tasks, and scenes, the order of which changes for every show.
At the top of the show, the performers are assigned a letter (A, B, C, or D) and they follow the order given on their specific signboard for the performance.
This means the assignment of roles can happen 24 different ways, and tasks given on the board change nightly, so the show is never the same twice.
The dramatic scenes are from a script by Saviana Stanescu. All other text is made up on the spot.
Safer controls the action by ringing a bell to signal when the next item on each signboard is to be done. Many of the tasks assigned to the performers involve holding uncomfortable looking poses or repeating difficult movements or gestures, and Safer seemed to be delighting in making those segments of the show last longer than the actors might wish.
So the show is almost like a game, played, for our benefit and edification and enjoyment, by the actors and their director. On one level, the game is, more or less, "Torture the Actors." On another level, though, it seemed to me to be more about free will than torture: the rules of this game empower the actors to improvise within given constraints under given sets of circumstances, even as they are under the control of some higher power (i.e., Safer), forced to react to his commands the way that a pack of hypothetical dogs would react to the commands of Pavlov. There's a sharp metaphor for the human condition in there.
But the show ultimately doesn't explore that metaphor any more deeply than I've just described; neither does it really examine the essential tension between the performers' play on stage and the fact that the game they're playing is all about (and simulates) torture. This is due in part to the fact that this piece is very much a work-in-progress: logistically, it is enormously complicated, and at only 40 minutes in length (so far) it doesn't cover as much ground as it possibly ultimately will.
As it is, there's less of Stanescu's text recreating and/or meditating on the act of torture than one might wish for; and there's very little indeed about Choice Overload (a source that Safer talked about at length on the nytheatrecast about this show) beyond the show's basic concept. As for the vicious dogs of the title—there are a few movement sequences that suggest them evocatively, and there's a section where everyone (including, whimsically, Safer himself on the sidelines) dons a dog mask. But the integration of all of these ideas into something thought-provoking and cohesive (along the lines of Witness Relocation's last piece, Dancing vs. the Rat Experiment) has not yet happened here. Hopefully, it will as the work evolves.
For now, go for the playfulness that my companion talked about. This is a very fun evening of theatre, and the performers—Heather Christian, Sean Donovan, Mike Mikos, and Laura Berlin Stringer—are very talented and engaging. And there is, as Safer promises on our podcast, a happy ending.