Be The Dog
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 26, 2009
Be The Dog, RyderWorks' exuberant production based on short stories by Dave Eggers, begins with the cast of four running around the stage as a pack of wildly happy dogs. They leap, shuffle, move in slow motion, circle one another, and choreograph simple formations. They address the audience, expressing their love for speed. Their eyes are open wide, their smiles broad, and each one relishes their abilities to move. The person I went with thought the opening on the verge of "too much." I thought it just right. But we both agreed that the actors were very easy to watch.
The show though is not about the dogs and it's not about speed. It is about the very human beings they observe on a daily basis. There are hints of this throughout the beginning as the dogs talk about running. One dog belongs to a family whose parents mourn their dead daughter. Another dog speaks of a time he fell into a body of water and spent a long time at the bottom. These random anecdotes lend dimension to their glee and the lay the groundwork for the stories to come.
The actors become these people, playing out two-person scenes and in a neat bit of staging, director Jason McDowell-Green keeps one or more of them—as dogs—on the outskirts of the stage, observing the action. In one scene, a man named Fish pumps gas into his car and is approached by an attractive woman named Wendy, who asks him for a ride. He wavers for a moment because he is on his way to San Diego for an important trip to visit a family member. She is a charmer though and he agrees to take her. When the situation twists unexpectedly, the watching dogs jump to their feet, eager to present another scene. "Get a load of this," they seem to say. "And we have so much more to show you."
Their participation isn't limited to watching though. In a scene involving two friends (a man named Hand and a woman named Pilar) who meet at a beach resort to take a vacation, the dogs get involved, explaining to the audience what each character thinks and feels as they test the boundaries of a relationship that may be moving toward romance.
The dogs dissect the humans' behaviors and motivations like canine anthropologists and playwright Emily Kaye Liberis adds another wrinkle by having the dogs present an interlude involving their relationship to a group of squirrels. The squirrels are a petty group that fiendishly mock the dogs' physical abilities and push them to the point of remorseless retribution. Exposing the dogs' vulnerabilities—the watchers' reactions to being watched—pays off near the end of the show when the dogs reveal their poetic destinies.
I won't spoil the ending by giving away the revelation but the pack voices unexpected wisdom about the existence of God and the nature of human relationships. As we walked away from the theatre, my friend called the production "a rough draft," saying it needed to be longer to flesh the stories out. I agreed with her. McDowell-Green draws great returns from his talented cast's eagerness to play and the stories intrigue with turns, complications, and spiraling dialogue, but they need more substance and definition to represent the dogs' point of view. The elements are there though, and Be The Dog is a fine show. I'm interested to see what the company does with it.